LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Charlie Crist could barely walk through the crowd without stopping to greet, hug and mug for pictures.
Democratic activists packing the Disney convention hotel Saturday at their state conference flocked to the former Republican governor.
Crist was loose and chatty. He threw his arms around Nan Rich, of Weston, his likely Democratic governor’s race rival. He clowned around with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
An aide tried to move him along at one point. Crist was more than 30 minutes late for a meeting with party bigwigs. Crist demurred.
“This is more important,” he said, leaning in to hug yet another white-haired lady.
If Crist, the formerly self-described Ronald Reagan Republican, faces hurdles uniting his new party for another gubernatorial run, there was little sign of it among the more than 1,000 Democratic activists gathered.
“People say to me all the time, ’Yeah, but what about the activists and Crist?’ ” said Bob Poe, former state party chairman, who only a few years ago blasted Crist in press release after press release.
“Look right there,” Poe said, pointing to a scrum lining up to shake Crist’s hand and pose with him for a photo. “I’m not worried about the activists. I can’t even get him across the room.”
The enthusiasm, or at least acceptance, of Crist wasn’t universal among this group of hard-core Democrats, but many fondly recalled his tenure and record as a moderate Republican governor.
“I believe voting rights are extremely important, and he helped restore the voting rights of ex-felons,” said University of Florida student Christina Ford of Safety Harbor.
“Who got Obama elected in 2008?” Martin County Democratic State Committeeman David Dew asked. “If Charlie Crist had not extended early voting, Obama probably would not have won.”
Crist, 57, did not give an address to all 1,300 delegates at Disney, where activists distributed “Pink Slip Rick” buttons and “Hillary 2016” T-shirts. Still, he sucked the air out of the room.
And backers of Rich, a former state senator, are miffed.
“If people would stop the negative comments all the time that he is the only person that can win, she might have a chance,” said Susan Smith of Odessa, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.
Smith said Crist “has Jeb Bush ideas on education” and “I haven’t heard him say he’s pro-choice, I haven’t heard him say enough about gun safety. He lost a lot of jobs when he was governor.”
Perhaps most importantly, she said, Crist left the governor’s office to run for Senate, that is “he abandoned the job and Florida once before to run for Senate and that’s a big part of why Rick Scott is governor today.”
Smith’s criticisms are not going to go away.
The Republican Party of Florida will make sure of that.
The state GOP and Scott’s campaign, which are virtually indistinguishable, plan to spend as much as $100 million on his re-election bid. And a good amount of that money will be spent attacking Crist in the Democratic primary, perhaps as soon as he announces early next week.
Florida GOP staffers made sure to stalk Democrats at their own conference, where Chair Lenny Curry predicted that Republicans will educate all Floridians about the former governor’s record.