Crist, Scott turn to party stars as nasty Florida race hits home stretch

Former Florida Governor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (C) heads out of the Mid-County Senior Center, during a four-city bus campaign tour in Lake Worth, Fla. on Nov. 3, 2014.
Former Florida Governor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (C) heads out of the Mid-County Senior Center, during a four-city bus campaign tour in Lake Worth, Fla. on Nov. 3, 2014.

ORLANDO, Fla. – With just one day until voters in Florida cast their ballots in what could be the most expensive and tightest gubernatorial race in the country, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democratic former Gov. Charlie Crist are relying on major political star power in the hopes of increasing their chances of winning the Sunshine State’s highest office.

"We need your youth, we need your energy"'

Crist, after making stops in the Democratic-heavy counties of Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward, rounded out Monday at a rally at the University of Central Florida alongside former President Bill Clinton.

Scott, meanwhile, campaigned with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, making stops in Clearwater, Lakeland, The Villages, Plant City and Orlando.  Over the weekend, Scott appeared with popular former Gov. Jeb Bush while Crist campaigned with Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, Bush, Perry and Jindal are all considered potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates, and battleground Florida, of course, will be critical to the fortunes of any serious presidential candidate for the foreseeable future.

At the rally, Crist and Clinton stood in front of a giant American flag in the school’s auditorium, and behind a podium with a sign that said “Charlie Crist: The people’s governor.”

Clinton began by thanking Crist for “running and going up against this amazing money machine that’s against them,” referring to Scott’s nearly 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. He added, “You cannot leave anybody home. At this campus there are still people who could vote in this election who want to build their futures in Florida … We need your youth, we need your energy.”

Clinton was just in Florida last month – attending an event for Crist in Tampa and another one for congressional candidate Gwen Graham in Tallahassee.

"We see the GOP going further and further to the right. I don’t blame Crist for switching parties. I don’t see him as a flip flopper, I see him as someone whose views have evolved"'

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson also made a surprise appearance at the rally, criticizing Scott on a slew of initiatives including cuts to education and climate change. Nelson quoted Scott infamously saying earlier this year that he didn’t know if climate change is man made, arguing “I’m not a scientist.” Nelson hit back to applause, “Your senator is not a scientist but I can sure learn and study." Nelson  added: “You have seen what has happened in the last four years and it has not been good.”

Before Clinton, Crist spoke for about two minutes, joking “I won’t give a long speech because I know who you came to hear.” He encouraged students to vote if they want equal pay, a raise in the minimum wage and a woman’s right to choose. “Go get five more [votes ] tomorrow … because if we vote, we win.”

Polls have continually shown Crist and Scott in a dead heat. A Quinnipiac University survey released Monday echoed that pattern with Crist garnering 42% compared to Scott’s 41%, well within the poll’s margin of error. Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie raked in a decent 7% and is taking away votes from both candidates.

With the race neck-and-neck, the key to victory will be which candidate can turn out the most votes on Election Day -- which may well be driven by which of these unpopular politicians is disliked the least. Both Crist and Scott have suffered from low favorability ratings -- below 50% -- throughout the election cycle.

Scott has tried to paint Crist as a political opportunist, and a flip-flopper – pointing to his time as a Republican governor, then as an independent during his failed Senate bid in 2010, and finally his decision to run as a Democrat to try to win back the governorship.

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But the incumbent has baggage of his own that Crist -- who was elected governor in 2006 -- is trying to capitalize on. The Democrat has repeatedly attacked Scott’s time as head of hospital chain Columbia/HCA, which was hit with a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud. Scott also come under fire -- largely from the left -- for a host of conservative initiatives, such as pushing for drug testing of welfare recipients and pushing an austere budget that included big cuts to education spending in addition to slashing about 12,000 public sector jobs.

The race has taken several nasty turns, with the two candidates trading jabs over their personal wealth. Crist has highlighted Scott's repeated use of the 5th Amendment when his hospital chain was found guilty of fraud, and Scott has called Crist a lackey of President Obama. Television ad spending has surpassed the $100 million mark, including a recent $13 million directly from Gov. Scott's own personal fortune. At times, the campaign has become downright silly – with a recent debate being infamously held up over whether or not a fan at Crist’s podium was against the rules.

Several national issues have sparked fierce debate between the two candidates. That includes the minimum wage (Crist wants to increase it to $10.10, Scott doesn't), medical marijuana (Scott is against a state amendment that would allow it, while Crist supports the legislation), and abortion (Scott is against abortion and has backed additional restrictions to reproductive rights, while Crist says he’s against any additional restrictions).

Crist has been trying to make inroads with minority, gay and young voters – many of whom tend to vote Democratic. That was apparent during his election eve rally at the UCF campus on Monday, where students lined up hours to gain entry. Whether or not Crist's last-minute push will work remains to be seen.

Several students expressed disillusionment with the political infighting between Crist and Scott at the rally and said they were more interested in seeing the former president than the man running for governor. “I’m more here to see Bill Clinton,” said 21-year-old senior Jon Walker, who said he was voting for Wylie. Of the party-switching Crist, he said, “I don’t trust that he’s going to have solid Democratic views.”

Gabriela Wolk, a 20-year-old junior who identified herself as an independent, said, “Both Scott and Crist are not overly appealing candidates … It’s picking the lesser of two evils.” Others, like 25-year-old senior Michael Krysinski, dismissed Crist’s party switching as no big deal.

“We see the GOP going further and further to the right. I don’t blame Crist for switching parties. I don’t see him as a flip flopper, I see him as someone whose views have evolved,” said Krysinski, who already cast a ballot for Crist in early voting.

In terms of minority outreach, over the weekend, Biden appeared at an event at Florida International University that focused on Hispanic voters, and went as far as to suggest the demographic could decide the race. Scott is also trying to woo Hispanic voters. In Hialeah, Scott appeared with Bush and Hispanic politicians—speaking in both English and Spanish – to make his case.

Early voting in Florida ended on Sunday, and about three million votes have already been cast. That includes 1.3 million ballots cast by Republicans and 1.2 million by Democrats.

Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University, said because this gubernatorial race has been so ugly and divisive, whoever wins may actually feel like a loser. “It’s going to be hard for whoever wins to govern  in terms of pushing bills, navigating the legislature and working with local counties and municipal governments.”