By Saundra Amrhein
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Nov 4 (Reuters) - Former FloridaGovernor Charlie Crist, who quit the Republican Party and becamea Democrat, launched a campaign on Monday to win back his oldjob, setting the stage for what is expected to be one of themost expensive governor's races in the country next year.
At the rally where he formally announced his campaign beforea crowd of supporters, Crist criticized current RepublicanGovernor Rick Scott.
"It's not a sin to reach across the aisle. It's your job towork together. So yes, I'm running as a Democrat and I'm proudof it," Crist said.
Crist, a 57-year-old lawyer, was heavily criticized byfellow Republicans after accepting stimulus money for his statefrom President Barack Obama and hugging the president on camera.Crist ran for the U.S. Senate as an Independent and lost. Heswitched parties last year and openly campaigned for Obama'sre-election.
Opinion surveys in recent months show Crist holding a leadover Scott in any potential matchup for the gubernatorial racein Florida, a perennial swing state and the fourth most populousin the United States.
A win by a Democrat in the Florida governor's race would bethe party's first in more than a decade, and could haveimplications for the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Republicanscontrol every statehouse across the South.
A millionaire former healthcare executive, Scott poured some$85 million into his 2010 election campaign, according tocampaign records. The amount more than tripled what hispredecessor Crist spent during his 2006 campaign.
Scott, who won office with support from the conservative TeaParty wing of the Republican party, has struggled with lowapproval ratings and faced criticism over his hardline stance onissues including healthcare reform, education and voting rights.
Crist, who served as governor from 2007 to 2011, portrayedScott in his speech as an out-of-touch elitist and emphasizedhis own record on education, the environment and voting rights.
"Under this administration, big business, big lobbies andbig contributers are the winners," Crist said.
Crist pledged that if elected he would work for severalinitiatives including giving education incentives to graduatestudents in the medical, science and engineering fields if theystay in Florida after graduation. He also vowed to boost stateinvestment in roads, bridges and ports.
"Common sense versus nonsense," said Crist, who is expectedto face a challenge for the Democratic nomination from formerstate Senator Nan Rich.
Republicans have repeatedly criticized Crist, who became anIndependent after initially running for the Republicannomination for a Senate seat in 2010 against the ultimatewinner, Marco Rubio.
Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican, criticizedCrist as fickle. "Democrats have to be wondering, will he use usto be something else next year," he said.
"I respect, even honor, opponents who stand by theirprinciples. I cannot respect an opponent who has no principlesand therefore no honor," Gaetz added.
White-haired and perpetually tanned, Crist was a populargovernor. He endorsed John McCain in the Florida RepublicanPrimary in 2008.
But Crist embraced Obama on camera as the presidentcampaigned for his economic stimulus bill in 2009. The big hugwas replayed often, alienating Crist from conservativeRepublicans.
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