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Crist should stop ducking Rich debate

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Published:   |   Updated: July 25, 2014 at 11:19 AM

Nearly everyone believes Charlie Crist will be the Democratic nominee to oppose Gov. Rick Scott this fall, as long as he doesn’t mess it up. So it may be smart politics for Crist to ignore Nan Rich’s repeated requests for a debate.

I’m sure Crist’s handlers have told him nothing good can come from sharing a stage with Rich, his only rival for the nomination. That’s why he says he is focused on defeating Scott and doesn’t have the time to work a debate into his schedule.

I suppose that’s what a confident front-runner says, and he can get away with it for now. If he continues to pretend Rich doesn’t exist, he probably breezes to a primary victory Aug. 26 and we head to Crist vs. Scott in November.

Yep, that’s sound strategy, as long as Crist’s only goal is to win the nomination. If he has higher aspirations, though, refusing to debate is a blunder. It’s the political version of a “prevent defense” and, as football pundits like to say, all that does is prevent victory.

If he wants to win in November, Changeling Charlie has to convince his new best friends in the Democratic Party that he really is one of them. He needs to earn their trust. He needs them to like him more than they dislike Scott.

While meeting Rich elevates her status, it also gives Crist the chance to prove he is more than a repackaged version of “Chain Gang Charlie.” It’s an image Rich is working hard to plant in voters’ heads.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the video by now — Gov. Rick Scott standing for nearly a minute, seemingly unable to answer questions any governor ought to be able to answer,” Rich wrote in one of her regular releases. “When you pair it with Charlie Crist’s refusal to debate, you get a picture of what our Republican governors think of voters — one who can’t answer, one who won’t.”

Crist may believe it’s safe to disregard comments like that now, but he is going to need every vote he can get in the fall. If Democratic voters believe there is no real difference between Crist and Scott, they might sit this one out. He still has the record of those draconian cuts and budget deficits that Scott’s attack ads highlight from Crist’s one term as governor.

Rich is an unapologetic, flag-totin’ liberal Democrat, and it’s a mistake to believe no one is paying attention. She has been crisscrossing the state for months, going wherever she is asked and speaking to core Democratic ideals.

She may not be piling up enough votes to win a primary, but she is making friends. That’s why treating her like an infectious mosquito is dangerous.

A debate with Rich would be the perfect dress rehearsal for Crist in his coming Armageddon with Scott. It would give him a chance to be seen as something more than a craven opportunist who changed parties because the old one didn’t want him any more. It would give him a chance to confront Democratic doubts about him directly. And it would take one arrow out of Scott’s quiver.

When he was at The Tampa Tribune offices recently to meet with the editorial board, Scott was asked about the possibility of debating Crist this fall.

“Why don’t you ask Charlie Crist when he’s going to debate Nan Rich?” Scott answered with a smirk.

It’s a reasonable question. Crist’s continuing silence is not a reasonable answer.

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