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TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor who wound up leaving the Republican Party amid the tea party backlash aimed at Barack Obama, became the first prominent Democrat in the state to announce a bid to knock off incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But Crist’s Tuesday announcement — replete with a gospel choir and flags fluttering in the wind — nearly got overshadowed by rival Democrats also planning their own challenges.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who held a press conference to call on DeSantis to veto a long line of bills, all but guaranteed Tuesday that she is running for governor. And Rep. Val Demings put out a biographical video on her social media account that appeared tailor-made for an expected bid.

Crist, however, did not mention his fellow Democrats during his kick-off speech in St. Petersburg. Instead he took aim at DeSantis and Republicans as out of touch and unfeeling in helping Floridians during the more than year-long pandemic. He gave his speech ahead of five-day statewide tour he is launching to publicize his latest run.

“This is a governor who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t care, and doesn’t think about you — unless of course you can write a campaign check,” Crist said. “Really, he sees our state’s wonderful diversity as a threat, not a strength we all celebrate. He’s failed to lead during the greatest health and economic crisis of our lifetime.”

He also said that DeSantis — a potential 2024 presidential contender — was more interested in his “personal political fortunes” and linked him to former President Donald Trump as someone “who always takes credit but never takes responsibility.”

DeSantis on Tuesday brushed aside Crist’s challenge by joking “which party is he going to run under?” After noting he sides with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, DeSantis suggested that Crist should be running as a Green Party candidate instead of as a Democrat.

DeSantis, who has constantly touted his resistance to lockdowns and mask mandates during the pandemic, also said he welcomed debating his handling of the Covid pandemic with Crist and other Democrats.

“If you look at our state and how we’re doing, I don’t think people could argue with the result,” DeSantis said. “Please run on lockdowns, please run against us putting seniors first.”

This will be Crist’s third bid for governor. After winning his first run in 2006 as the GOP candidate, he chose to run for U.S. Senate in 2010 as an independent only to lose to Marco Rubio. He ran for governor again in 2014 only to narrowly lose to incumbent Rick Scott in 2014.

Even when he was governor, Crist took moderate stances and pushed to restore voting rights for former felons. He eagerly welcomed stimulus help from the federal government during the Great Recession but he blamed animus toward Obama as part of his decision to leave the Republican Party. His opening video includes footage of Obama praising Crist as well as a clip of Crist hugging Obama during a 2009 rally that created a firestorm of controversy for him at the time.

Crist has always carried the persona of a “happy warrior” and has a natural ease with both campaigning and raising money. When asked earlier this year about how he expected to cope in a crowded Democratic primary, Crist compared himself to President Joe Biden.

Still Florida has not elected a Democratic governor since 1994. And Crist’s pathway to the Democratic nomination is far from guaranteed.

Fried, who has been building a campaign organization in advance of 2022, said it was “Charlie’s day,” but made it clear that her bid is coming soon.

“As the only statewide elected Democrat, it makes absolute sense for me to run for governor. But today is not the day to make that announcement,” Fried told reporters.

Demings, who rose to national prominence during the first Trump impeachment and was considered as a running mate to Biden, is also expected to enter the race. She released a video Tuesday morning that highlighted her rise as a police chief and then her campaign for Congress. In it, Demings said “success is not only about being prepared, it’s about opportunity.”

The Democratic nominee will have a tough battle against DeSantis, who has become a conservative celebrity for his disdain of the media, his pushing back against Covid-19 restrictions and a legislative agenda that took aim at Big Tech as well as protesters in the wake of the summer’s anti-police brutality demonstrations. DeSantis has also raised millions already for his re-election, including a $2.8 million contribution in the past week from the Republican Governor’s Association.

Crist was first elected to Congress in 2016 and his decision to run for governor will likely put his congressional district in play as a possible pickup for Republicans next year. Anna Paulina Luna, who won the GOP primary with the backing of Rep. Matt Gaetz and other conservative stalwarts, has already announced she is going to run for the seat again.

Matt Dixon contributed to this report.



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