ORLANDO, Fla. — Charlie Crist had barely entered the room before a throng of teachers swarmed him.
The union delegates – and stalwart Democrats – wanted autographs, pictures, hugs and even kisses from the former Republican governor.
“We love you, Charlie!” a woman shouted, locking arms with Crist as someone snapped a picture.
“I love you all,” he told those gathered at the Florida Education Association’s annual convention this month.
Nearly three years after losing a U.S. Senate campaign to Republican Marco Rubio and leaving the governor’s mansion, Crist is plotting a political comeback that seems fantastical even by Florida’s stranger-than-fiction standards.
The man who once identified himself as a Ronald Reagan Republican is preparing for another gubernatorial bid, this time as a Barack Obama Democrat.
As he travels the nation’s largest swing-voting state, Crist is emphasizing the bipartisanship and consensus-building that marked his sole term as governor. Most early polls show him leading the unpopular incumbent, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a former hospital company executive elected with tea party support in 2010.
Democratic officials, looking for a candidate to lead them back to power in Florida after 15 years, have embraced the convert.
In an era of political polarization, Democratic leaders see his pragmatic governing record as a national model for a party trying to claim the political center and solidify gains among the country’s fast-growing bloc of independent voters.
A statewide victory also would give Florida Democrats an organizational edge in the 2016 presidential election.
“The shutdown and the fiasco in Washington have made that style of bring-everybody-together government much more popular,” said Ed Rendell, the former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and ex-chairman of the National Governors Association. “Charlie’s going to ride a wave.”
According to a Gallup poll this month, nearly half of Americans now identify themselves as independent, an all-time high. A separate survey found that a record 60 percent of Americans are so dissatisfied with the way Democrats and Republicans are governing the country that they favor the creation of a third major party.
Crist, who calls himself “the people’s governor,” might be able to capitalize on that disenchantment – if voters are willing to overlook his history of conflicting positions in key areas.
His reputation as a moderate governor stemmed in part from his willingness to break with the GOP on major issues. He vetoed legislation that would have required ultrasounds before abortions, killed a bill that would have instituted merit pay for teachers and supported the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. Scott has since signed ultrasound and merit-pay bills and reversed Crist’s voting rights effort.
Crist calls “bringing a new tone to Tallahassee of bipartisanship” his proudest achievement.
“People are so fed up with the partisan rancor that we are experiencing on a national level,” Crist recently told The Associated Press. “I would compare it to children in a schoolyard, but that would be insulting to the children in the schoolyard.”
The messy primary fight with Rubio in the 2010 Senate race has made him far from the perfect Democratic messenger. He spent much of that race campaigning as a pro-gun, anti-abortion, small-government Republican, saying it would be hard to find anyone more conservative.
When GOP activists and donors rallied around Rubio, Crist mounted an independent bid.
After the loss, he began backing Democrats in state and federal races and campaigned for Obama in last year’s election.
“I feel at home, truly,” Crist said recently.
Republicans have not forgotten – or forgiven – Crist’s defection.
Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money on his 2 010 campaign, already has raised nearly $18.5 million from donors, promising a withering ad blitz against his opponent early next year. Signaling what’s to come, the state party has started painting Crist as a political chameleon “unfit to govern.”
Some Democrats also are suspicious and are favoring candidate Nan Rich, a former state Senate minority leader. Rich has questioned Crist’s Democratic credentials but has had trouble raising money for a statewide campaign.
Crist surprised many Democrats this year when he declared his support for gay marriage. In 2006, he backed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Florida, a position he reaffirmed in 2008 and in 2010.
Crist said Obama’s support for gay marriage last year prompted him to change his mind.
Democratic leaders, who have spent much of the last decade on the sidelines of a GOP-dominated Legislature, are excited by the prospect of nominating Crist.
Lawton Chiles was the last Democrat elected governor, in 1994.
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