Fanning the flames of uncertainty about former Gov. Charlie Crist's viability as a gubernatorial candidate, Democrats close to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson are letting potential supporters know the three-term senator is waiting in the wings if Crist's campaign stumbles.
Nelson's chief of staff, Pete Mitchell, called some prominent Democrats recently and told them the 71-year-old Nelson, who has been coy about his interest in the governor's race, is considering a bid, according to sources who spoke on background.
Crist, who served as a Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, is attempting a political comeback after leaving the GOP in 2010 and joining the Democratic Party late last year. Polls have consistently shown Crist would handily defeat incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who reportedly plans to spend $100 million in his re-election effort.
Crist has staffed up with prominent figures from President Barack Obama's two successful campaigns in Florida, including Democratic strategist Steve Schale, and is expected to raise as much as $2 million in his first month as a candidate.
But some Democrats remain skeptical that Crist can overcome what is expected to be a brutal campaign that could cripple his favorability. Any sign that Crist's could fumble the chance to defeat the unpopular Scott could increase calls for Nelson to enter the race.
"Nobody cares more about Florida than Bill Nelson, so you've got to know that he's watching this very carefully," said Charlie Lydecker, a longtime Nelson supporter and fundraiser.
Florida Democrats are split into two camps, said former Florida Democratic Party executive director Screven Watson. "Gung-ho, damn-the-torpedoes" fans like former FDP Chairman Bob Poe have lined up with Crist, while others, like former FDP Chairman Rod Smith, are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to the newly-minted Democrat. Some close to Nelson say it is the latter group who are urging Nelson to enter the race.
"I have said since last summer that Bill Nelson is saying 'no,' but he hasn't said, 'hell, no,'" Watson said. "If Charlie Crist stubs his toe, if he shows any weakness, [Nelson supporters] are going to pounce, and that pounce would be to fly to Washington to talk Bill Nelson into running."
In an interview Wednesday, Smith said Nelson would be a strong contender.
"He's a known commodity, both to the party and to the people of Florida. ... Bill has a sense of Florida and where Florida is politically. He would be a formidable candidate," Smith said.
Mitchell did not return calls seeking comment. In an interview last week with a Gannett Washington correspondent, Nelson repeated well-worn statements brushing off -- but not denying -- rumors about a candidacy.
"I’m not going to say anything," Nelson said. "I will support the Democratic nominee."
Crist supporters privately expressed frustration that Nelson's backers appear to be prematurely writing off Crist.
Schale said Crist would ultimately convince Democrats that he is a viable candidate for the nomination.
"Campaigns are like long novels," he said. "We're nine days into a 365-day campaign. There will be a lot of ups and downs, a lot of plot twists and turns before it's over."
Nelson would not have to resign to run, but his election could pose a problem for Democrats who are already expected to face a tough fight to hold their majority in the Senate. Nelson would have to give up an opportunity to lead the Senate Commerce Committee if elected governor.
And while the right to appoint a successor would currently fall to Nelson if elected governor, the GOP-dominated Legislature could change that law after the November election.
Democrats in Massachusetts changed that state's law about replacing senators after Republican Gov. Mitt Romney won election in 2002, as Democratic Sen. John Kerry was seeking the presidency.
It would be a twist on history if Nelson jumped into the race. In 1990, Nelson was considered the favorite against unpopular Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. But when Martinez began to recover, leading Democrats grew concerned that the folksy Nelson was failing to connect with Florida voters. They convinced Lawton Chiles, the retired U.S. senator who had repeatedly declined to run, to enter the race.
Chiles defeated Nelson by 30 points in the Democratic primary, a loss that temporarily derailed Nelson's political career before he made a comeback in the 1994 elections, winning a race for insurance commissioner. Nelson served there until being elected to the Senate in 2000.
Crist's supporters say there are few similarities between the two races because, unlike Crist, Nelson was relatively unknown statewide at the time he ran for governor and lacked the national fund-raising base that Crist enjoys.
Democrats hope to avoid a nasty primary. Crist's only current opponent is former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich of Weston, who has struggled to gain traction.