Make a date to debate, Charlie Crist

What’s Charlie Crist afraid of?

The Editorial Board asked this almost two months ago and asks again after Herald writer Kathleen McGrory’s June 22 front-page story on Democrat Nan Rich’s grassroots quest to get traction in the race for the governor’s mansion.

Ms. Rich is an accomplished former state senator from Weston and a true-blue Democrat. She’s also the underdog, the long shot. But for some reason, Mr. Crist, a newly minted Democrat who’s running hard to regain his job as governor, is also running the other direction when it comes to stepping up and debating Nan Rich for all the world to see.

As the presumptive Democratic nominee — a phrase that seems to ratify the primary outcome before voters have a say — Mr. Crist has been straining at the reins to have a go at the Republican incumbent. But he has barely acknowledged Ms. Rich’s presence in the primary race. She has a tiny fraction of the campaign money that the former governor has raised. She hasn’t cracked $400,000 in funding, while Mr. Crist has almost $12 million.

So what is Mr. Crist afraid of? Or is it arrogance? His refusal to debate the former legislator is unseemly and exclusionary. Of course, it’s politics at its worst.

As a public servant, Mr. Crist had enough heft to persuade Floridians to vote him into the state Senate. They later made him the state’s Commissioner of Education, the last to be elected to the position. After that, he was elected the state’s first Republican attorney general.

As a politician, however, Mr. Crist has a lot for which he has to answer — and Ms. Rich, no doubt, would have a long list of questions for the former governor. Many Democrats still look askance at Mr. Crist’s late arrival to the party — that is, the Democratic Party. Was it a sincere move by a long-time Republican once known at “Chain-Gang Charlie” in his tough-on-crime days in the Legislature, or an opportunistic shift after his “Obama embrace,” literal and figurative, made him a pariah among Republicans in 2009? He was branded as too moderate for the right-veering GOP, an accusation that could be of help in this purple state.

Still, Mr. Crist, who dabbled briefly as an Independent before moving into the Dems column, insists that he’s a man of the people. He should realize that they will call him to account for his record — as they will Gov. Rick Scott — in due course. The man who had the political boldness to hug the then-new occupant of the White House should show his commitment to the democratic process, making the case for himself sooner rather than later by debating Ms. Rich.

As bad, the Florida Democratic Party is giving Mr. Crist undeserved cover. In its quest to take back the governor’s mansion, state party officials have clammed up, remained neutral. Instead of taking a stand and pushing for a real primary race, they have, with their silence, already declared Mr. Crist “The One.”

Mr. Crist might think that he’s acting in his own best interest, but he’s not. And he’s definitely cheating state Democrats, who make up the majority of voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Not only is his rebuff of a Crist-Rich debate unseemly, it has handed the Repubican Party of Florida the ammunition with which to attack him. Makes no sense. Neither did the trial balloon he sent up a few weeks ago, announcing that he was considering a trip to Cuba. He has postponed it. Now that he has a little extra time, he should deign to debate Nan Rich.