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Bill Nelson for Florida governor? It's possible

Crist's path to the Democratic nomination for governor could be complicated by the surprise entry of Florida's elder statesman, Sen. Bill Nelson.
Bill Nelson
US Senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, gestures to the media as he enters the Senate Finance Committee hearing room for a hearing on health insurance exchanges on November 6, 2013 in the Dirksen Senate Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Former Republican Governor-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist is aiming to take his old job back and topple unpopular Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his massive money machine in 2014. But his path to the nomination could be complicated by the surprise entry of Florida's elder statesman, Sen. Bill Nelson.

“I firmly believe he is considering the race,” said former Florida Congressman Jim Davis.

Bob Graham, Florida’s popular former governor and U.S. senator, agreed,  adding he still has time to make a decision.

“Sen. Nelson is capable of deferring his decision without a delay adversely affecting his chances to win a primary,” said Florida’s popular former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.  “He just came off a statewide run and has plenty of name recognition and built in advantages.”

Nelson has been flirting with jumping in for months and has been delivering fiery speeches across the Sunshine State in opposition to Scott's agenda. He and his advisers have refused to rule out a run and are likely to wait and see how much support coalesces around Crist before making a decision.

Nelson's staff and political advisers declined to comment. But several national level Democrats, with close ties to Florida, also said that the 70-year-old, three-term senator is seriously mulling a campaign for governor and would ultimately decide by the first of the new year.

"If Senator Nelson were to get into the race, his popularity and name recognition and the fact that he has consistently been a Democrat would prove formidable," said one senior Democratic official. 

For now, national Democrats have embraced Crist's party switch and candidacy.  After all he's an agile campaigner with energy, charm--and good name recognition. "People know who he is," said Davis, who was Crist’s 2006 Democratic opponent in the governor’s race. "That is his advantage."

 Gov. Scott is a key Democratic  target in 2014 and is on the list of vulnerable GOP incumbents. The left cannot afford to nominate a weak candidate to face an incumbent who has already pledged to spend $100 million dollars.

 Although Scott has received record low approval ratings, his numbers have been improving.  A Quinnipiac University Poll from June revealed Scott's job approval rating at 43% with 44% disapproval.  A recent Florida Chamber of Commerce Poll from October saw Scott's approval tick up to 47%.

 While Crist led Scott by 10 points or more prior to September, a new poll from the University of North Florida showed that lead winnowed down to just four points.

Some Democrats are concerned that Crist is vulnerable to charges by Scott that he’s a party-jumping perennial candidate who acts out of political convenience and sacrifices principle for self-interest. Crist’s campaign did not returns requests for comment.

But could Nelson be the savior Democrats need to defeat Scott? Some consider him a more comfortable choice to rank and file Democrats because of his deep roots in the party. He has strong appeal. After being outspent by his opponent in 2012--when outside groups came in to spend $20 million against him--Nelson won a decisive sixteen point victory while President Obama barely squeaked out a victory.

"He is very concerned about what Governor Scott is doing to this state," said Davis. "Senator Nelson is not going to sit back and watch him be re-elected."

The 71 year old would be Florida’s oldest governor if elected. It’s also unclear what kind of national political environment Nelson would face next year. If President Obama’s approval rating continues to sink, it could hurt Nelson’s chances: his opposition would tie him to the failures surrounding the roll out of the healthcare website.

History has a way of repeating itself. Nearly twenty five years ago, the 47-year-old Nelson launched a campaign to unseat the vulnerable Republican incumbent Gov. Bob Martinez. Nelson was seen as a sure bet to win the nomination and locked up early support among state party officials and the donors.  But as Martinez's numbers rebounded and he expanded his war chest, Democrats became nervous. A year into Nelson's quest, former Sen. Lawton Chiles came out of retirement, and jumped into the primary race against  Nelson.

Chiles ended up thumping Nelson by over 30 points and went on to defeat the incumbent Martinez after one of the most brutal and ugly primaries Floridians had ever witnessed. 

"Bill Nelson cares too deeply about Florida to jeopardize Democrats chances to defeat Rick Scott in 2014 by getting into a primary fight," said one national Democrat.

“Senator Nelson is in the same position Senator Chiles was in in 1990,” said Graham.  “I don’t know what Bill’s decision will be, but it will certainly be another interesting year in Florida politics,” he said. 

It’s likely Scott and the Florida GOP have already written their playbook for running against Crist.  If Nelson pulls a "Chiles” in 2014 it would force Gov. Scott to devise a new general election strategy, said Graham.  “If the race is between Rick Scott and Charlie Crist, it is going to be a very negative campaign,” he predicted. “But if the race is between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson, it will become a referendum on the governor.”