Bill Clinton sounded worried.
“Typically in nonpresidential years, Republicans vote better than Democrats do,” the former president said Friday night at a Miami campaign rally for Charlie Crist. “And we’re not going to let that happen, are we?”
The crowd of several hundred shouted back a loud no.
Clinton’s concern cropped up time and again in his 25-minute speech designed to vouch for the Democratic bonafides of Crist and fire up the faithful so that Florida Democrats can win their first governor’s race since 1994.
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This year, Democrats are trying in the most-unorthodox of ways — with a former Republican governor who was an independent before becoming a Democrat. Crist faces the weakest incumbent in years, Gov. Rick Scott, whose poll numbers have been poor since the political newcomer barely won office in 2010.
But after a $24 million ad campaign — most of it negative and trained on Crist — the race is close. A Tampa Bay Times poll this week found Scott ahead by 5 percentage points, but a SurveyUSA poll last week indicated Crist was up by 2 percentage points.
Aside from Scott’s deep pockets and the improving economy, the governor can also rely on a Republican Party that excels at voter turnout in mid-term elections.
The Democrats have done just the opposite.
“It won’t be easy,” Crist said, speaking for only five minutes. “We’ve already spoken to hundreds of thousands of voters. But we need to speak to hundreds of thousands more.”
Crist let Clinton do all the talking, but made sure to stand by the former president’s side the entire time. Crist is also counting on outside help, including:
Planned Parenthood. Crist has a rally with the group Saturday in Miami Springs. Its allies have told Democrats they’re planning to spend about $3 million to mobilize women concerned about abortion rights.
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate group. It is planning to spend as much as $5 million for a field program to reach out to voters under 30 and Democratic Hispanics. He has spent $1 million so far on TV ads and plans to drop about $4 million more.
Labor and teacher unions. They’re embarking on a 750,000 door-knocking campaign to engage voters sympathetic to a labor message, particularly one that revolves around raising the minimum wage.
During Friday’s event, neither Crist nor Clinton directly said Scott’s name.
But Scott is making sure to mention Crist at nearly every campaign stop, referring to the Democrat by his first name.
“When Charlie was governor, unemployment went from one of the lowest in the country to one of the highest,” Scott said 24 hours before during a Miami stop. “If you look at all the indicators, under Charlie, it was a disaster.”
On Friday night, Clinton and Crist didn’t talk about jobs or the economy as much as Scott, but Clinton made sure to highlight issues that Scott shies away from: Expanding Medicaid, equal-pay for women and approving a minimum-wage increase — bread and butter Democratic issues.
Scott once said a minimum wage increase makes him “cringe.” When Clinton brought that quote up, the crowd booed.
Clinton made no mention of how Crist once supported his impeachment. He instead tried to make the case that the former Republican usually sided with Democrats, including his decision to back President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan.
Clinton played up Crist’s time as a Republican Attorney General when he fought phone companies over rate increases, and he reminded the crowd how Crist stood up for voting rights.
As governor, Crist kept early voting polls open for extra hours during the 2008 presidential elections — unlike Scott in 2012.
“I sat down and wrote him a fan letter. And I thanked him for doing it,” Clinton said. “And he did it knowing that most of the people who would be able to register and vote would probably vote for the Democratic Party. He did it because it was right.”
The crowd applauded.
“He did it because he knew that we are always a country of second chances,” Clinton said.
Now Crist wants a second chance at becoming governor after leaving office to run unsuccessfully for Senate in 2010. During that race, Crist left the GOP and ran as an independent.
Even then, out-of-state Democrats favored him over the Democratic nominee, Miami U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. Clinton tried to pressure Meek to leave the race, but he stayed. Republican Marco Rubio went on to win the election. Meek largely disappeared from politics and hasn’t endorsed Crist in this race.
But Meek’s successor, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, is wholeheartedly backing him now that he won the Democratic primary. The African-American leader introduced Crist and emphasized how his record as governor was good for minority voters.
They’re a key voting bloc for Democrats. About 75 percent of registered African-American voters cast ballots in Florida in 2012 when total turnout was 72 percent. But black voters disproportionately stayed home in 2010, when Republicans dominated at the polls and Scott won office.
Friday’s event in Miami was no coincidence.
Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 began registering and turning out more and more minority voters in Miami-Dade County, where the president won reelection by 24 percentage points, a nearly 8 percentage point increase from four years previously.
At the close of his speech, Clinton returned to the issue of blacks and voters.
“I remember what it was like when there was a poll tax in the South,” he said.
Clinton then pivoted to discussing the long elections lines that plagued Florida and Miami in 2012, when he said he was proud to see people dedicated to voting.
“I saw the African-Americans, the Hispanics, the other new immigrants standing there,” he said, “waiting as long as it took and they said: ‘You can take our advanced voting away, you can make it harder to vote, you can try to dis-empower us. But we do not give you permission to do that. This is our country, too.’”