MIAMI (AP) — A former Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, campaigned at early voting sites and black churches on the final weekend before a state Democratic primary as he sought his old job back under a different party affiliation.
Crist attended a South Florida church service on Sunday, sitting two rows in front of the state's former Senate Democratic leader and chief primary rival Nan Rich. Both he and his underdog opponent have campaigned heavily in populous Miami-Dade and Broward counties of South Florida in hopes of boosting voter turnout for Tuesday's primary.
The Democratic winner is expected to face Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has only minor opposition in the Republican primary. Scott has focused most of his re-election bid on Crist and polls show a tight race for governor likely should he and Crist meet in the general contest. Crist's effort to return to the governor's office as a Democrat is being closely watched nationally.
Crist was once considered a potential running mate for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, but his political fortunes changed after a widely publicized photo of him hugging President Barack Obama during a 2009 rally in support of the $787 billion federal stimulus. Crist later lost a Senate campaign as an independent and then made the final conversion to Democrat after campaigning heavily for Obama's re-election.
On Sunday, Rich and Crist both shook hands, then both swayed to the gospel music, Rich clapping her hands to the beat. They both also visited the same early voting site at a library in Miami Gardens, where Rich quietly walked through the crowd talking to voters about issues such as education and health care.
By contrast, Crist was surrounded by a large crowd where he posed for pictures and shouted out "I love you" to supporters.
That the two Democrats were campaigning head-to-head was a change from the way the primary has played out over past months. Crist has refused to debate Rich and rarely acknowledged her as a candidate, frustrating Rich and her supporters who wanted an opportunity to point out their differences.
Rich is a lifelong Democrat who has talked of consistency on issues, vowing to keep abortion legal, supporting gay rights and tightening gun laws.
Crist was seeking a strong showing Tuesday to put aside any doubts that Democrats haven't accepted his party conversion. He spent many of the final days before the primary in South Florida, which holds the most Democratic votes.
"It's always important no matter what the election, whether it's a primary election or a general election, to get the vote out," Crist said. "Particularly for the primary, South Florida is a significant focus for us."
And at an earlier church stop in Miami Gardens, Crist let the congregation know he has been converted.
"I've seen the light and I am a Democrat," Crist said. "A Florida Democrat! Praise God!"
For his part, Scott on Monday was expected to announce a series of education proposals in a state where education, along with jobs and the economy, are becoming flashpoints in the governor's race. Scott has been hammered by Crist over school budget cuts that Scott endorsed during his first year as governor.
Associated Press Writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.