LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) - Former Republican governor-turned Democrat Charlie Crist has been working the Florida Democratic Party's conference like a candidate as he builds up to finally announcing what seemingly everyone in Florida already knows.
Crist said he will reveal whether he will run for governor on Nov. 4 in a downtown St. Petersburg park. He referred to an event as a kickoff; politicians usually don't kick off a non-campaign.
"November 4th gives you a year, one way or the other, and it's time to reach a conclusion," Crist said Saturday at the conference. "I'm leaning a certain way, I think that's obvious."
Obvious, indeed. Crist didn't have a speaking role at the conference, which was wrapping up Sunday, but from beginning to end, he worked hallways, caucus meetings and events. He was mobbed by supporters and posed for countless photos. The fact that the same activists used to work to try to defeat Crist didn't seem to matter.
"Everybody seems to be very warm to him and he's warming up," said former Senate Democratic Leader. Dan Gelber. "This is the center of Democratic activism in Florida right now and I haven't seen anybody walk up to him and give him an unkind word, and believe me, they would."
Democrats did showcase other statewide candidates, including former Sen. Nan Rich, the only credible Democrat now seeking the nomination to challenge Republican Rick Scott. Attorney general candidate George Sheldon and chief financial officer candidate William Rankin also addressed the conference on Sunday.
Rich acknowledged that she won't be alone in the race for long.
"At the moment, I remain the only serious Democratic candidate for governor, but I have a sneaking suspicion that's going to change soon," she said. "I know that being a woman, a mom and a grandmother probably gives me an unfair advantage over Charlie."
She also said leadership isn't based on personality, but principles.
"There is no denying that Charlie Crist has a lot of style," Rich said. "With so much at stake, I truly believe this election will be more about substance than style. I believe that it must be about substance to get Florida on the right track."
Crist, who called himself "the people's governor" after he was sworn in in 2007, will be keeping that theme now that he's a Democrat. He is also questioning whether Scott cares about people.
"I wonder about the incumbent and whether or not the people factor is the most important thing that's uppermost in his administration," Crist said. "Without a doubt, the people factor is the most important thing that's uppermost with myself."
Crist has been building up to his announcement for more than a year. He showed his commitment to his new party by campaigning with President Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates last year. Then after registering as a Democrat, he began traveling the state and talking to Democratic groups. He said he wanted to make sure the support would be there if he ran for governor.
"Realize we're talking about a fellow as an opponent who has said he will spend $100 million in this race and added more to that by saying he would spend at the outset $25 million defining his opponent. I think I know what that means," said Crist. "I need to know that if I jump into this deep water, there's going to be some lifeboats. So I have tried to test those waters and learn about that, and so far I feel pretty good about it."
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, who camped out in the hotel where the Democrats held their conference, called Crist an untrustworthy opportunist, pointing at his decision to leave the GOP primary for Senate in 2010 and run as an independent.
"When the economy got tough and he was running for the U.S. Senate, he was traveling the state giving the most right-wing, red-meat speeches that I've ever heard before or since. Then when that didn't work, suddenly he was this (independent) that stands for everybody - and now he's a Democrat," Curry said.