Crist at ease with joining Democrats

He says switching parties wasn’t a matter of opportunism

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s coming-out party as a Democrat moved to Washington on Wednesday, as the once-rising Republican star testified at a Capitol Hill hearing on voting problems in the 2012 election.

The Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee marked the latest phase of what many think is a phoenixlike attempt to revive his political career after his embarrassing loss during his 2010 Senate run.

Mr. Crist, with his trademark silver hair, glowing tan and relaxed charm, worked the room like the veteran politician he is — warmly embracing his new Democratic brothers, panel Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and fellow Floridian Bill Nelson, before the proceedings.

Speaking later with reporters, Mr. Crist was coy about his future but — in keeping with his character — left the door wide open for a possible challenge in 2014 to unpopular Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“I don’t really have a time frame I’m just doing what I think and feel is right,” he said.

Mr. Crist’s political career has crashed since 2008, when, during his sole term as governor, his cachet within the party was so strong he was whispered to be a possible running mate for Sen. John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee that year.

But only two years later, he ran for Senate as an independent after polls showed he was significantly behind now-Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. Mr. Crist finished second in the general election, 19 percentage points behind Mr. Rubio. Then-Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate, placed a distant third.

But with Mr. Scott’s public-opinion ratings also in the tank, polls suggest voters view Mr. Crist as a viable alternative.

The results of a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday show Mr. Scott’s job-approval rating with voters a dismal 36 percent, while 52 percent say he doesn’t deserve a second term.

Mr. Crist, meanwhile, was viewed favorably by 47 percent of Florida voters, the poll showed. By comparison, Mr. Scott was viewed favorably by 31 percent of voters.

The Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald also reported last week that a private poll of 1,000 Democratic voters gave Mr. Crist an overwhelming advantage over all other Democrats in a hypothetical primary for governor, including a 21-point lead in a test matchup against Alex Sink, the party’s 2010 nominee. About half of the poll was done before he announced he was becoming a Democrat.

Mr. Crist took at shot Wednesday at Mr. Scott’s handling of the November elections, telling the Senate committee that while statewide elections ran smoothly under his watch in 2008, problems at the polls last month made Florida “once again a late-night TV joke.”

Mr. Crist, 56, brushed off accusations he’s a political opportunist, saying his evolution to the political left is organic and sincere.

“Life is a learning experience, and I think that the older you get, the more wisdom you can accumulate,” he said. “If you continue to use your mind to keep it open, the opposite I don’t think is a reasonable alternative, i.e., a closed mind. I have an open mind.”

He signed paperwork to switch to the Democratic Party while attending a White House Christmas party Dec. 7. The Tampa Bay Times reported President Obama greeted the news by fist-bumping Mr. Crist, who campaigned for him in Florida this year.

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