Former Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist launched his campaign for his old job Monday, promising to take the state in a new direction if he is returned to office as a Democrat.
“Today I announce that I am running for governor of Florida. And the reason is to put you back in charge," Crist told supporters at a rally Monday morning near his St. Petersburg home.
Crist said his successor and likely opponent next fall, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, went to Tallahassee as an outsider who said he would shake up the capital – but that didn't happen.
“Overnight he went from taking on Tallahassee to becoming the example of what’s wrong with the place,” Crist said. “The seat that you occupied, the people occupied, at the table was replaced by a revolving door of special interests, each anteing up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the governor’s re-election fund to ensure their voice was heard and not yours. The more I watched Rick Scott govern – the partisanship, the deals, always putting the special interests ahead of your interests – and the more I heard from you the people, I knew it was time to take Florida in a better direction.”
Crist criticized the incumbent, saying he favors big business, big contributors and big lobbyists. Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011, told the crowd he will take back Florida for the people.
He spelled out several focus points for his campaign, including more affordable college educations, a tax policy that favors the middle class and improving infrastructure across the state.
Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston is also seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Scott, but Crist is the party's frontrunner.
Crist enjoys universal name recognition in the Sunshine State and, if he wins the nomination, will be facing an unpopular governor in Scott – but he nevertheless faces a tough campaign. Crist will be up against money and attacks like he's never seen before in a political career where he has won three statewide offices and lost two U.S. Senate races.
"He's trying to bully me by waving around his $100 million checkbook. A $100 million. And he says he will start spending $25 million — I think it begins tonight — on me with false advertising, negative ads and nothing about his record because he doesn't have a record he's proud of," Crist told the crowd of about 200. "If we are tireless in our desire to make Florida a better place again, then Rick Scott can spend a billion dollars on dishonest ads and it won't matter."
Scott's communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Crist's criticisms of the governor.
But the Republican Party of Florida held an afternoon conference call to use one of Crist's former allies, George LeMieux, against him. LeMieux worked as chief of staff when Crist was attorney general, ran Crist's 2006 campaign for governor and was appointed by Crist to serve in the U.S. Senate after Mel Martinez resigned.
"He's unrecognizable to me in this new form he's in and he's got a lot of explaining to do," said LeMieux, adding that Crist has taken two or three positions on nearly every major issue.
Republicans and Scott have made it clear how they're going to attack Crist.
For months they've pointed out that Florida's economy and employment tanked while Crist was governor and that it has improved under Scott. While Florida's rebound largely reflects that of the nation's, Scott is taking credit for it, and every week he holds press conferences to announce new jobs. His slogan has gone from "let's get to work" to "it's working."
Scott and Republicans are also trying to tear down Crist's image. They call him a political opportunist who said one thing to win office as a Republican and is saying another as a Democrat. They say he's untrustworthy and his only concern is his political career.
Scott's political committee began airing attack ads Monday, spending more than $500,000 on a 30-second spot that uses old anti-Crist quotes from prominent Democrats, including former party chairwoman Karen Thurman's line that Crist's "only core belief is personal ambition."
Crist told supporters Tallahassee is a mess.
“And what we have here in Florida today isn’t working. Tallahassee is out of control," he said. "Governing for the people has been replaced with cronyism and government on the fringes. The voice of the people has been silenced by the financial bullies and the special interests.”
Crist confirmed to NBC 6 on Friday that he filed paperwork to run as a Democratic candidate in 2014 and would make his official announcement Monday.
Crist's event was near the same park where he announced in 2010 that he would run for Senate as an independent. He lost that race to Marco Rubio and is now trying to make a political comeback as a Democrat.
The former Republican said the far right wing’s focus on his party affiliation represents what is wrong with politics today.
Crist said Scott and some politicians in Washington “seem to think that the only way to govern is from the fringes, that anyone who doesn’t agree with them on everything is an enemy, or worse yet, somehow not as patriotic. That is why Washington is so dysfunctional and why state government has lost its way here,” Crist said. “When the people give you the honor of being their governor, you aren’t the governor of any one party. You’re the governor for all Floridians.”
Crist said it’s not a sin to reach across the aisle and that politicians are obligated to work together.
“So yes – yeah, I’m running as a Democrat, and I am proud to do it,” he said emphatically.
He also sought the votes of independents and Republicans – including his parents.
Crist has been building up to the campaign, last year campaigning for Democratic President Barack Obama and this year speaking to Democratic party groups.
More Stories on NBC6.com: