Marc Caputo: Rick Scott-Charlie Crist race already under way

Two years before he’s even on the ballot, Rick Scott is already the $5 million candidate.

Expect that number — the amount he raised through his personal political committee since winning office — to more than quadruple in the coming months. In addition, he has the Republican Party’s coffers and his personal millions at the ready.

Scott will need every penny.

The unpopular governor faces two formidable challenges: His own record and the chance that his predecessor, Charlie Crist, might run against him.

At this early stage, it appears that the potential Scott-Crist election matchup is all about elections — specifically an elections law Scott signed.

Scott wouldn’t even mention Crist’s name during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS4’s Facing South Florida With Jim DeFede. Scott, though, subtly contrasted the job-growth on his watch with that of Crist’s.

“Think about it, the four years before I became governor, we had lost 825,000 jobs. Unemployment had gone from 3.5 to 11.1 percent,” Scott said.

Scott also played defense during the interview over his decision to sign HB1355, which cut back early voting days. Unlike Crist in 2008, Scott refused to extend early voting hours in 2012 to cope with long lines at the polls.

The net result: an actual decrease in cumulative early voting hours of 20 percent in 2012 compared to 2008 in regions like South Florida.

“After I signed the executive order expanding it,” Crist told The Palm Beach Post last Sunday, “I heard from Republicans around the state who were bold enough to share it with me that, ‘You just gave the election to Barack Obama.’ ”

Then came along HB 1355. Scott subsequently signed it in the first legislative session after he won office (Obama narrowly won Florida again, anyway).

“I assume they decided, ‘It’s 2011, Crist is gone, let’s give it a shot,’ ” Crist told the Post. “And that’s exactly what they did. And it is exactly what it turned out to be.”

The Republican Party of Florida sprung into action the day after The Post story broke by publishing a rebuttal from a lobbyist who disputed the characterizations of his remarks. The comments, incidentally, jibe with what many top GOP consultants and a few Republican lawmakers privately said about HB1355, a draft of which was authored by a Republican lawyer.

The party also pointed out that the main source in the story, former RPOF chairman Jim Greer, is under indictment for allegedly defrauding the party. Greer denies the claims and is suing RPOF for failing to pay him a severance agreed to by party leaders.

In a second salvo, RPOF then issued last Thursday a press release that compared the duo of Greer and Crist to a “big-budget disaster” that it nicknamed “Shipwreck.”

“In front of a camera, Charlie Crist has the ability to meld into any character — from ‘Chain Gang Charlie’ to sympathetic ‘Man of the People’ — there is seemingly no role that he can’t play,” RPOF said.

It’s unclear, however, whether Crist will ultimately play the role of Democratic nominee.

Crist isn’t yet a Democrat. He left the Republican Party in 2010 only after he realized his chances of beating Marco Rubio in a GOP Senate primary were hopeless. Crist became an independent and lost the general election to Rubio.

In contrast with his bashing of Obama in 2008, Crist was an Obama surrogate in 2012.

While a number of Democratic insiders are uncomfortable with him leading the party, others look at Crist as their best shot. That speaks volumes about the sorry state of the Florida Democratic Party, which is struggling to find a chairman, let alone a standard-bearer.

The woman who lost to Scott in 2010, former state CFO Alex Sink, looks like she’s preparing for a second run as a Democrat. Former state Sen. Nan Rich is running, too.

Scott and RPOF couldn’t be happier with the prospect of a bloody Democratic primary.

“Any smart campaign always takes every opponent seriously. Charlie Crist is no exception,” RPOF spokesman Brian Burgess said in a written statement.

“Crist wants Democrats to forget his GOP history and he wants the rest of voters to forget how he cratered Florida’s economy. We don’t intend to let him get away with either,” Burgess said.

To that end, the party has repeatedly noted the “two faces of Charlie Crist.”

But just framing an opponent as a flip-flopper can backfire. Paradoxically, voters can trust flip-flopping candidates if they believe he’s ultimately on their side.

Based on that calculus rendered by former President Bill Clinton, Obama avoided repeated mentions of Republican Mitt Romney’s policy reversals. Obama instead spent money relatively early that negatively defined his opponent.

"Don’t compare me to the almighty,” Obama said last year. “Compare me to the alternative."

Rick Scott couldn’t have said it better himself.