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Florida Governor's Race: Familiar Faces, Big Money, Brutal Ads

Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida (left), and Rick Scott, the current Republican governor of Florida, listen to the moderators during a gubernatorial debate on Friday. The two are facing off in a tight race that's fueling a barrage of negative campaign ads.
Lynne Sladky
Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida (left), and Rick Scott, the current Republican governor of Florida, listen to the moderators during a gubernatorial debate on Friday. The two are facing off in a tight race that's fueling a barrage of negative campaign ads.

Florida is home to the most expensive race in the country this midterm election — one of the nation's closest and nastiest gubernatorial contests.

incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott is facing former Florida governor Charlie Crist, a Democrat. Both candidates are well-known, both are prolific fundraisers and outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race. It's all combined to make it one of the nation's closest and nastiest gubernatorial races.

On paper, Scott has a lot going for him. He's an incumbent, with nearly unlimited money, in a state that's finally in economic recovery. But after four years of chronically low approval ratings, his bid for re-election is turning out to be anything but easy.

Florida is a state almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans control the legislature and all the top state offices, but in the last two Presidential elections, Barack Obama mobilized Democrats and carried the state.

And Crist, the Democratic candidate for governor, is hoping to replicate that in this election.

At a campaign stop in a Miami suburb recently, Crist met with Marcela Parra, a college student upset about recent cuts in Florida's "Bright Futures" scholarship program.

"Four years ago, you would have qualified for a Bright Futures scholarship, back when I was governor, essentially," he says, as she agrees. "Now with Rick Scott and a change in policy, you don't qualify anymore."

Charlie Crist is the challenger in the race, but to Floridians, he's a familiar face. He was a Republican when he served as governor. But a lot has changed since then. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, first as a Republican, and then as an independent. Now, Crist is a Democrat, running for a seat he left behind just four years ago.

It's a remarkable political transformation — one the Scott campaign lampoons in TV ads. One ad shows Crist announcing his various campaigns: as a Republican, an independent and then a Democrat. "Flippin' unbelievable," says the voiceover.

Crist often paraphrases Ronald Reagan, saying, "I didn't leave the Republican party. It left me." And he quotes another Republican popular in Florida.

"Jeb Bush said it better than I could ever say it. He said, 'Today's Republican Party appears to be anti-women, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-environment — the list goes on,' " he's said.

Crist is being outspent by Scott in the race, but has mounted his own relentless barrage of attack ads. Many hark back to Scott's tenure as head of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., a hospital chain hit with what at the time was the nation's largest-ever fine for Medicare fraud.

"Taxpayers and seniors got cheated," says the voiceover on one Crist ad. "But Rick Scott walked away with millions."

They're charges that were leveled against Scott when he first ran for governor. Scott overcame them in that race and is working to do so again, by turning them around and attacking Crist.

"In 2010, the Democrats attacked me. And I said, when I ran a company, I will take responsibility for the actions while I was the CEO," Scott said during the debate. "In contrast, Charlie's never taken responsibility for anything."

Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida, says after months of wall-to-wall negative ads, many voters are dazed and confused.

"If you're a person who doesn't really follow politics 24/7, you're having a very difficult time figuring which of these is telling the truth," MacManus says. "We have had more negative ads, longer. It's been almost non-stop."

Last week, in their first debate, Scott and Crist laid out their positions on a series of issues. On many there's a stark difference.

On the five-decade long Cuba embargo — a perennial Florida issue — Scott supports it. Crist wants to lift it. On gay marriage, Crist is for it. Scott opposes it and reminded debate viewers not so long ago, Crist did also. Crist supported a state ban on same-sex marriage but later said that position was a mistake.

"Charlie said he took that position for political expediency," Scott said in the debate. "So, my concern today is, what positions has he taken today for political expediency?"

It's a charge that fires up Republicans — many of whom feel betrayed by Crist's switch in political parties. But it's also aimed at independent voters who may wonder, after his political transformation, what exactly Charlie Crist stands for.

Crist's campaign, for its part, hopes to win over independents, but is putting much of its focus on getting Democrats out to vote.

Crist is one of the few Democrats running this election not distancing himself from President Obama; first lady Michelle Obama will be campaigning for him in Florida later this week.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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