Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for Florida governor on Tuesday, defeating his primary challenger with almost 75 percent of the vote in early results and setting the stage for a nationally watched governor's race.
Republican Governor Rick Scott easily cruised toward victory with over 87 percent of the vote over two little-known primary opponents in the early ballot tabulations.
Voter turnout was low, with many precincts quiet all day. Early voting saw more than 1.2 million people cast votes before election day, according to state officials.
The voting results provide the first gauge of Democratic enthusiasm for Crist, who governed Florida as a Republican from 2007 to 2011 and now wants the job back under a different party label.
"Philosophies change," said Catherine Hettinger, an Orlando-area Democrat who accepted Crist's argument that the Republican Party had moved too far right for him. "He's a centrist."
Crist largely ignored a primary challenge from Nan Rich, a former state legislator from south Florida.
Anything less than an overwhelming Crist victory could expose his weaknesses in a party he only recently joined after spending most of his political life as a Republican, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
"He has not played to the base as he has to the middle," Smith said. "In doing so, he risks alienating those core Democrats he is going to need in the general election."
Florida Democratic leaders, seeking to move quickly past the primary, have plans for unity rallies featuring both candidates on Thursday in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
With polls showing a virtual tie in a race between Scott and Crist, both already are bashing each other's records on everything from taxes to jobs, education and energy policy.
Scott's campaign highlighted Crist's decision to seek a U.S. Senate seat instead of a second term as governor when Florida was among the hardest states hit by the recession.
Crist later left his party to run as an independent after his campaign fizzled on the Republican ticket.
"Charlie Crist walked away in our toughest hour and didn't give a care in the world about suffering Floridians because he thought it was in the best interest of his political future to avoid the hard times and hard decisions," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, a Republican, in a statement from the Scott campaign.
In a telling sign, Crist organized his primary night campaign party in Fort Lauderdale, a Democratic stronghold where voter turnout could be crucial to his chances in November.
Turnout in the primary election could provide an early indicator of enthusiasm for the general election, experts said.
"If the turnout is high in a primary that usually means turnout will be high in November," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, noting that Democrats typically struggle to get their voters out in midterm elections.
"When they do get the turnout, they win," he added.
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