Politics

Crist stumps with first lady — and his trusted fan

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

President Barack Obama is increasingly unpopular among Floridians, but that did not stop Charlie Crist from happily campaigning alongside First Lady Michelle Obama on Friday here and in Miami Gardens to boost his bid to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

“There’s a reason why Charlie is known as the people’s governor here in Florida,” Mrs. Obama told the predominantly black and Hispanic crowd of about 700 people assembled inside a park gymnasium in Orlando. “It’s because Charlie gets it.”

The nearly 20-minute speech was reminiscent of the playbook for her husband’s 2012 re-election campaign, especially its focus on the country’s economic gains from when President Obama took office in 2009, when “we were in full-blown crisis mode.”

“Let’s be very clear: If we want to finish what we all started together, then we need to elect Charlie Crist as the governor of the state of Florida,” Mrs. Obama said.

Crist spoke for less than three minutes before she took the stage, talking generally about his positions on raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid. He did slip in a quick reference to the “Fangate” controversy that awkwardly delayed this week’s televised debate and was widely mocked on late-night comedy shows.

“It’s right here. It’s all good. You’re my fan!” he told the crowd, the fan blowing at his feet.

Crist is one of few Democrats nationally in a competitive, high-profile race who has said he would welcome the opportunity to campaign side-by-side with President Obama, but it’s not clear that will happen.

For one thing, the Ebola scare is keeping the president off the campaign trail. The White House scrubbed a planned trip Wednesday to campaign with Gov. Dan Malloy in Connecticut, one of several overwhelmingly Democratic states Obama had scheduled for visits in the final weeks of the election. He is scheduled to campaign in Illinois and Maryland on Sunday.

Nor is the Crist team sold on whether it wants Obama to campaign in Florida before Nov. 4. Obama’s poll numbers are abysmal, with only 38 percent of likely Florida voters approving of his performance and 56 percent disapproving, according to a Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/UF Bob Graham Center Poll released earlier this week.

Crist campaign leaders sense the momentum is on their side — especially after “Fangate” — and some question whether a visit from Obama would be an unnecessary distraction.

Michelle Obama, however, is an entirely different story. There is no downside to having her in Florida.

In the second rally in Miami Gardens, Mrs. Obamaurged more than 1,000 supporters who were packed into a recreational gymnasium to summon the energy and enthusiasm they brought to her husband’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

“If we want to finish what we started then we need to elect Charlie Crist governor of Florida,” Mrs. Obama, imploring the mostly African-American crowd to defy historical precedent and turn out to vote in the midterm elections.

While no recent poll has measured her popularity here, national polls have consistently found that at least two-thirds of Americans have a favorable view, which is better than other first ladies in modern history.

“Michelle will carry the weight,” said Orlando Democrat Freddy Filmore, 72.

“She has charisma,” said Cristina Miller, 38, a Cuban-American hairstylist. “She’s a genuine person.”

Still, the Crist campaign has not closed the door on a presidential visit from Obama, who remains popular with parts of the Democratic base that Crist needs to turn out.

In fact, some observers argue that Republicans are helping ensure stronger African-American turnout by airing so many TV ads linking Crist and Obama. In 2010, African-Americans accounted for a stronger-than-expected 11 percent of the electorate despite Democratic nominee Alex Sink spending little time and money mobilizing black voters. Democratic strategists believe the Scott campaign’s relentless TV ads attacking Obama helped account for that.

Filmore, who is black, said Crist’s agenda is more favorable for African-Americans and Hispanics, singling out the candidates’ views on gun control duringWednesday’s debate. Asked whether justice was served in the high-profile killing of Trayvon Martin, Crist said he was for overturning the “stand your ground” law that shielded George Zimmerman from a guilty verdict, while Scott said he would not change it.

“The thing that matters to me is too many black kids getting killed,” Filmore said.

Crist’s rally came on the heels of the state Department of Economic Opportunity announcing Florida’s unemployment rate dropped slightly to 6.1 percent in September. That’s the lowest it has been since June 2008, when it was 6 percent.

Miller, who said she voted for Crist’s primary challenger Nan Rich in August, said Scott’s economy-based argument may win over some voters, particularly in Orlando, where the health of the housing market still dominates local conversation.

“I think it’s tough to overcome for Charlie,” Miller said.

Mrs. Obama stressed the need to increase Democratic turnout in midterm elections, imploring the crowd to “make that commitment” and vote early. She reminded voters about the slim margin (61,550 votes) that decided Sink’s loss to Scott in 2010.

“Make those calls, knock on some doors for Charlie,” she said, “like you did for Barack.”

Contact Katie Sanders at ksanders@tampabay.com. Follow @katielsanders.

  Comments