Marc Caputo: The politics of Charlie Crist's debate dodge

04/20/2014 2:20 PM

04/20/2014 5:26 PM

Charlie Crist never leaves a TV camera without a comment or campaign talk unspoken.

Except when it comes to Nan Rich.

If you don’t know who that is, it’s evidence of the effectiveness of Crist’s tactic of cold-shouldering the former Weston state senator, a fellow Democrat he refuses to debate or really acknowledge.

Crist’s debate dodge is also a sign of the ineffectiveness of Rich’s campaign, which hasn’t done enough to force Crist to need to debate her.

Rich officially announced in April 2012 but has only raised $540,000. Crist officially announced 19 months later, and has raised more than 14 times Rich’s amount, about $7.7 million.

Money talks, folks.

It’s a leading indicator of a campaign’s viability. And it’s a lagging indicator of support. Campaigns without lots of money aren’t taken seriously.

Still, since Crist has so much more support (the former governor has universal statewide name ID, Rich is barely known), why not throw her a bone and debate the longtime Democrat who once led her party in the state Senate?

“No,” Crist said tersely Saturday at a Plantation field office opening, where about 300 people showed up in a sign of his groundswell of support in Rich’s home county.

“I’m focused on Rick Scott. It’s so important we defeat this guy,” Crist said. “If I spend any energy doing anything but that, shame on me. I gotta go at it.”

Rich, pointing to Crist’s party-switching past, said his debate posture is “disrespectful to Democrats. We deserve to know where he stands on Democratic issues.”

Rich pointed out last week that Duval County’s Democratic Executive Committee recently passed a resolution calling on Crist to debate. Some of her supporters are pushing for the same in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“He hasn’t paid his dues as a Democrat,” said Deltravis Williams, a Rich supporter and Democratic precinct committeeman for South Miami who said he’ll advocate that the Miami-Dade’s party call for a debate.

Back in 2009 and 2010, when Crist was a Republican governor, he ignored Republican executive committees throughout the state as grassroots opposition mounted against him.

A little-known challenger, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, was so effective at harnessing that local anger and the money of outside interests that it chased Crist out of the GOP. He became an independent, lost to Rubio anyway in a three-way race and recently became a Democrat.

“The polls suggested Marco wouldn’t have a shot in the primary in 2010 and we saw what happened there,” Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a friend of Rubio’s, said Saturday after a Miami event.

“Charlie still has a primary,” Lopez-Cantera said. “We all look forward to him debating Nan Rich. Because I think that’s going to be quite entertaining.”

Last week, Crist pulled a stunt by crashing an interview Lopez-Cantera was holding with local press in Palm Beach County.

“Give me Scott,” Crist said as a debate challenge.

“That’s laughable,” Scott said Tuesday, pointing out that he wants to see Crist debate Rich because of the primary.

But Scott and Lopez-Cantera’s also have a primary. And they’re not eager to debate the six GOP challengers: Yinka Abosede Adeshina, Vincent Dominic Angiolillo, Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, Timothy Michael Devine, Berthram B. Samuel and Dr. Joe Smith.

And it’s not like Rich has talked about the need for the other Democratic candidates (Monroe Lee, Ryan Adam Lipner, Marcelle Martelly, Roland McCoy, Jessica Lana Stewart and Randy Zapata) to get their shot on the debate stage.

(For those keeping score at home, there are now 32 candidates for governor.)

Rich isn’t as little-known as these other also-rans. And she’s more of a potential threat and benefit to Crist.

Privately, Crist’s top backers say they don’t want to give Rich the platform. That she hasn’t earned it. That her campaign isn’t viable. That she’s motivated by bitterness and is now just an ironic pawn used by Scott.

Crist, however, is also using Rich.

He wants her in the race as an unknown so that, come the Aug. 26 primary, he’ll beat her and the others by double digits. He’ll hog the spotlight, appear as if he has momentum.

The tactics and strategy are as sound as they are mercenary.

But it cuts both ways.

Scott hates debates. He has said they’re phony made-for-TV spectacles.

Scott has run just once for statewide office. He isn’t as telegenic or debate-savvy as Crist, who has run for statewide office five other times since 1998. Crist is also beating the better-funded independently wealthy Scott in most polls, despite the governor’s multi-million ad blitz.

Letting his millions (as much as $100 million) do the talking via TV ads, Scott would probably love to skip out on a debate with Crist.

And Crist, by stiff-arming Rich, is giving Scott an excuse to do it.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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