There are more than 4.7 million registered Democrats in Florida, but it looks more and more like only one is a viable -- and willing -- potential candidate to challenge vulnerable Gov. Rick Scott: former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, who joined the Democratic Party in December.
2010 nominee Alex Sink and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz were thought to be potential candidates for the Democratic nomination, but are now looking unlikely to run. Other Democrats floated include former Orlando police chief and 2012 congressional candidate Val Demings, Ft. Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and former state Sen. Dan Gelber. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who was considered a potential candidate, bowed out last month. Each candidate would have some support, but in a diverse state with about 10 media markets, Crist would have an advantage in name identification and fundraising.
"It's like the perfect scenario for Crist," Democratic consultant Screven Watson said. "I'm not ready to coronate him, but I think it's damn close."
Democrats suggested that Gelber could be a strong candidate and come at Crist from the left, but Gelber said last month that he was waiting to see what Crist and Sink did before making a decision on the race. He's also considered close to Crist and seen as unlikely to run against him.
Diaz was being floated as an alternative to Crist because of his connections to the Miami-Dade area, a strong donor base for potential Democratic candidates. But the Miami Herald reported that it looked like Diaz was ruling out a run for personal reasons. Watson said the distance between other candidates and Sink or, further yet, Crist, "is as wide as the canyon."
"None of them have the name ID or fundraising of Charlie Crist," Watson added.
"Is there one [a candidate who could challenge Crist]? Yes? Do I think they will? No," said Watson, referring to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Dan McLaughlin, a spokesman for Nelson, told the Palm Beach Post that rumors of Nelson considering a bid weren't true, adding, "Right now Sen. Nelson cannot envision a circumstance under which he would run for governor."
Beyond those names, Democrats have suggested that former state Sen. Nan Rich could position herself as the anti-Crist candidate, or that a wealthy businessman type -- essentially a Democratic Rick Scott -- could jump in. But Rich, who declared her candidacy in April 2012, has struggled to gain traction for her campaign. As for the wealthy businessman who could self-finance, Watson compared it to a "unicorn."
"I hear about it, but I've never seen it," he said.
Some of those candidates could reconsider if Crist decides not to run, but Steven Schale, President Obama's 2008 state director, said, "I think the field, at this point, waits on Crist."
Schale acknowledged that some Democrats are hesitant to embrace Crist as the party's nominee because he's "the guy that some people spent 20 years trying to beat." But he added for most Democrats "there isn't that same angst. ... They thought highly of him when he was governor, and they still like him."
Democratic consultant Steve Vancore agreed. "It's Charlie Crist's to lose," said Vancore. "At this point in time, I don't see anybody who could really compete well in the Democratic primary."
Crist told WFOR-TV in Miami last month that he's "seriously considering" running for a second term as governor. If Crist decides to jump into the governor's race, Democrats agree that he'll have an advantage in statewide name-ID and fundraising. Schale said that with Crist looking at the race, he "didn't know how much room" a potential primary opponent would have to "find a coalition" to run against Crist.
"I don't know how Crist decides not to run," Schale said. "If he says 'I'm in,' he's probably pretty much assured of being the nominee."
Crist switched his party registration late last year and has been speaking to Democratic groups across the state. He's also caught the attention of the Republican Party of Florida, which targeted him in a TV ad last September and a web video titled "The Two Faces of Charlie Crist" in December. Both suggest that Crist has flipped on his positions.
But a Quinnipiac University poll released last week pushed back on the suggestion that Crist's party switch could hurt him. More than 75 percent of Democrats said the move was a "positive thing because it shows he is a pragmatist who can change with the times and issues," while 13 percent of Democratic respondents said it was "a negative thing because it shows he has no core beliefs." The poll also showed Crist leading the endangered Scott in a general election matchup, 50 percent to 34 percent.
Some Democrats hold out hope that another strong challenger might step forward. Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who managed Bill McBride's gubernatorial bid in 2002, said Crist was a "viable Democrat" but added that "people who are deciding not to run for governor because they think Charlie Crist has the primary election ... aren't thinking very deeply."
For a time, it looked like Crist's biggest primary competitor would be Sink, who lost to Scott by about 61,500 votes in 2010. But McBride, Sink's husband, died unexpectedly in December of last year, and Sink has recently sounded like she's leaning against a second run for the office. She has pushed back against the notion that she had completely ruled out a run, however, teling the Tampa Tribune this week, "The bottom line is I have not shut the door."
Rorapaugh said she expected that McBride's death "is going to weigh very heavily on [Sink] in this election cycle." Schale added that he didn't expect Sink to run, but that it wasn't a "forgone conclusion" that she wouldn't. Schale said, and others agreed, that Sink "has earned the right … to make this decision in her own time."
If Sink does decide to run, some Democrats suggested that she should jump in before Crist to build momentum. "She would be a viable challenger," said Vancore. "She comes in significantly behind Charlie, but she clearly is a seasoned campaigner, a seasoned fundraiser."
But this isn't Crist's first turn as a frontrunner. When Crist jumped into the 2010 Senate election, he held a commanding lead in the race for the Republican nomination, only to be overtaken by former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. Vancore said he "didn't see anything out there" that could significantly damage Crist this time around, but he added that "voters are fickle; they can change their minds."
One mistake Crist is unlikely to repeat is an early entry into the race. He announced for the 2010 Senate race in May 2009, but this time, there are few reasons for him to jump in early. Crist has the name-ID and the fundraising potential to stay out of the race until the fall.
"You have the opportunity … to be the dream candidate," Vancore said. "If he loses that dreamy appeal and he starts dipping in the polls that almost guarantees somebody else gets in."