Charlie Crist needs a course correction. Quick.
After a wasted week over his canceled Cuba trip and his wife’s tax returns, Crist needs to find a way to right his campaign ship. One way to do that is to change the subject. A candidate avoids the next bad headline by trumping it with a better story that the news media can’t resist.
This one is obvious: Crist should immediately reverse himself and agree to debate his Democratic primary opponent, former state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County. It’s a low-risk, high-reward opportunity that will give Crist the exposure he craves and the chance to tell voters why he wants his old job back.
Here are five reasons why debating Rich makes sense:• Smart politics. By dissing Rich, Crist shows a lack of respect to Rich’s supporters whose help he will need if, as expected, he wins the nomination. A lot of those supporters are in Rich’s home base of Broward, a Democratic stronghold critical to Crist’s hopes of victory in November. He can look statesmanlike and at the same time confront the fact that some view Rich as the only real Democrat running for governor. Then, under the lights, he can spend most of the time focusing on his true target, Gov. Rick Scott.
• Good practice. Crist hasn’t debated in four years and he’s probably rusty. An hour spent sparring on stage with Rich, and the disciplined preparation that it requires, is good practice for the fall campaign against Scott. The rap on Crist remains that he’s lacking in substance and ideas, and a debate gives him a chance to dispel that notion. Rich also can be expected to throw Crist’s past record in his face on issues such as guns, gay adoptions and school vouchers, all issues sure to be in play in the general election.
• Create a buzz. As the dog days of summer close in, there’s always a palpable lethargy on the campaign trail in Florida. A Crist-Rich debate will awaken Democrats and force them to focus on what’s at stake. Plus, it will generate a lot of media attention.
• Find the middle. For Crist, the only risk in debating Rich is that she may box him into saying something outlandish to appease the far left that could come back to haunt him with independents and conservative Democrats in the fall. But Crist is probably experienced enough to avoid that trap.
• Close the deal. A live televised face-off could dispel any notions that Rich may be the better candidate against Scott. On television, Crist looks like a governor because he was one, and that’s a highly marketable asset that he should take advantage of at every opportunity. Trailing Scott in fundraising, Crist needs all the free publicity he can get.
Democratic voters in Florida deserve to see these two side by side and hear their visions of how they would lead this state.
Rich has much less experience in head-to-head debates, and she’s the one playing catch-up in this primary. Eager to gain ground in a hurry, she may come off as combative or angry, creating a contrast to Crist’s happy-warrior image.
Crist ignores Rich at his peril. He should agree to a debate, because poor excuses for ducking her don’t cut it.
Steve Bousquet is the Tallahassee bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times.