Florida's largest gay rights group endorsed Charlie Crist for governor Thursday, boosting the liberal credentials of a budding Democrat and former Republican who once opposed gay marriage.
Equality Florida officials made the announcement at a visitors center for gays and lesbians in Miami Beach, citing Crist's current support for same-sex marriage and ongoing legal efforts to overturn the state's ban on the unions. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, also endorsed Crist.
"The early endorsement reflects the urgency of electing a governor who will speed progress when it comes to equality, not stand in the way of fairness," said Stratton Pollitzer, chairman of the Equality Florida's political action committee.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has said he supports the state's constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
The endorsements are a boon for Crist, who still faces a primary challenge from former state Sen. Nan Rich, a liberal stalwart who has long championed gay rights issues, and lingering skepticism from some Democratic activists who consider his political conversion dubious.
When he ran for governor eight years ago as a Republican, Crist opposed gay marriage and supported a state ban. In 2010, when he ran for U.S. Senate as an independent, he declared his support for civil unions. Now, running for his old job as a Democrat, Crist says he backs same-sex marriage.
Equality Florida leaders said their endorsement was in part driven by Crist's strong fundraising and polls showing him as the most competitive candidate against Scott.
On Thursday, Rich, who has struggled to raise the kind of cash necessary to run a statewide campaign, dismissed the endorsements.
"I believe the best indicator of what someone will do is what they have done," she said in a statement. "Regardless of who endorses him today, when he was the Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist did not support issues important to the LGBT community."
Last year, Crist characterized his past opposition as a mistake and has since apologized. On Thursday, backed by gay rights activists, Crist compared his evolution on the issue to President Barack Obama, who came out in favor of gay marriage in 2012 after favoring civil unions.
"Floridians want fairness -- and this is an issue of fundamental fairness," Crist said. "We need to allow people to love who they love."
The matter could become a wedge issue for Democrats to wield in Florida, where public opinion has shifted significantly since voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2008.
Pollitzer said Crist's reversal "reflects the evolution of Florida voters." A Quinnipiac University survey in April found that 56 percent of Florida voters -- and 64 percent of independents -- support allowing same-sex couples to marry.
The issue has emerged in the governor's race because eight gay couples and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the state in federal court, arguing that Florida is discriminating against gay couples by not recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal.