OCALA — Charlie Crist hopes that the hug that hurt him becomes the hug that now heals him.
Democratic President Barack Obama embraced Crist, then Florida's Republican governor, at a 2009 rally. Republican Marco Rubio used the image to successfully chase Crist from the GOP and defeat Crist, running as an independent, in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. Now Gov. Rick Scott also is using the hug to attack Crist.
The difference is Crist is now a Democrat and embracing the hug.
"That hug cost me more than you'll know with my former party," Crist said at a Marion County Democratic fundraising dinner this month. "But that hug today has a whole different feel to it."
Once one of the state's most successful Republican politicians, Crist is nine months into his new life as a Democrat and is preparing to run for his old job with his new party. And considering Obama carried Florida twice, the hug may not a bad thing as Crist tries to convince Democrats he's one of them and not just a politician trying to redefine himself and jump-start a dead political career.
"I'm proud to be a Democrat!" Crist said to enormous applause as he began speaking at the sold-out dinner. "We're proud to have you," a guest shouted back.
By the end of the 28-minute speech, there was another shout: "Run, Charlie!"
It seems clear Crist intends to run, and it's highly expected he'll do so. He's been building up to an announcement for more than a year. Last summer he spoke at the Democratic National Convention and campaigned with and for Obama in Florida. In December, he made the full conversion to Democrat, tweeting a photo of himself holding his voter registration card while standing in the White House.
And with a new fundraising quarter starting Oct. 1 and a major Florida Democratic Party conference at the end of October, it makes sense to announce soon. Crist says he'll make a decision in the fall. He'd immediately become the front-runner in a race that now has only one credible candidate — former state Sen. Nan Rich, who has struggled to raise the money needed for a statewide campaign.
There are reasons Democrats could be skeptical of Crist — as the Republican Party of Florida has pointed out almost daily for more than a year. In the past, he's said he is a Jeb Bush and Ronald Reagan Republican. He's praised Sarah Palin. He repeatedly said it would be hard to find anyone more conservative than he is.
But even when he was a Republican, there were those in the GOP who thought Crist was too close to the middle, and there were Democrats who praised him. Republican Tom Gallagher repeatedly called Crist a liberal when the two challenged each other for the 2006 GOP nomination. And shortly after Crist took office, then-Rep. Terry Fields endearingly called Crist, who is white, Florida's first black governor.
So some Democrats see the transition as natural.
"I had a pretty good seat to how he governed as a Republican, and I found very little to disagree with," said Dan Gelber, a former Senate Democratic leader.
That included expanding early voting in 2008, being a leader on climate change, vetoing a bill that would have required ultrasounds before abortions, vetoing a teacher merit pay bill and restoring voting rights for non-violent ex-felons. Scott has since signed ultrasound and teacher merit pay bills and reversed Crist's effort to allow ex-felons the right to vote.
Republicans have been anticipating a Crist run. They paint him as an untrustworthy political opportunist. Just about daily, the party sends out emails as part of the "This Day in Crist-ory" campaign to point out conflicting statements by Crist. The party also blames Crist for Florida's bad economy and points to improving economic indicators under Scott.
"I couldn't ask for a better opponent in terms of the ability to contrast failure under Charlie Crist and success under Rick Scott. People's lives have changed since Rick Scott was elected, and it's incredibly easy to demonstrate," state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said.
One thing that hasn't changed about Crist is his charisma. After he arrived 45 minutes late at the Ocala dinner, organizers tried to rush Crist to the head table. He refused to follow, choosing instead to stop at every table to greet people and pose for pictures. He shook people's hands with both of his. Every time he was called governor, he replied, "Just Charlie."
He kissed a toddler, gave out hugs and tried to make personal connections. He took salad plates out of waitresses' hands and served them to guests himself, saying, "I actually did that in law school. I was a waiter."
Crist also has showed he's ready to attack back at Republicans.
He said Scott cut school spending by $1.3 billion in his first year in office and then proposed raises for all teachers when it came time to run for re-election.
"This year, to try to start to make good with people in education, he tried to give them a $2,500 bonus. Like that's going to do it," Crist said. "Teachers are not dumb, and they cannot be bought."
Likewise, he criticized Scott on voting rights and environmental issues and for turning down $2.4 billion in federal money for a high speed rail project. And he came close to saying he will challenge Scott, who has set a goal of raising $100 million for his re-election.
"The middle-class people of this state, they deserve a voice. They deserve to be heard," Crist said. "We got a guy up there in Tallahassee saying he's going to spend $100 million to stop that from happening. You've seen that and you've seen how many people have stepped up to take him on. Talk about a bullying tactic. Well, some of us are not afraid."