TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – After months of playing coy, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson for the first time on Tuesday publicly acknowledged he is keeping open the option of running for governor.
Nelson, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, has repeatedly insisted he doesn’t intend to enter the race. But on Tuesday, Politico reported Nelson said that could change if newly-minted Democrat Charlie Crist, the one-time Republican governor of Florida who announced his candidacy two weeks ago, “gets into trouble.”
When asked to elaborate, Nelson said, “That’s in the eye of the beholder,” according to Politico.
Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said in an e-mail he “had nothing to add” to the Politico report, which initially said that Nelson reiterated his mantra of having no intention of running.
“He’s a nice man,” Crist, in Tallahassee schmoozing with reporters at the Florida Press Center, told The News Service of Florida when asked about Nelson’s initial comments about having no intention of running. “He’s my friend.”
Those close to both men on Tuesday shrugged off Nelson’s remarks, saying the 71-year-old senator merely stated out loud what everybody already knew. Nelson’s chief of staff Pete Mitchell said as much to powerful Florida Democrats in telephone calls over the past few weeks.
“I don’t really think he said anything today that isn’t common knowledge among the donors and the punditocracy,” said Crist’s chief political consultant Steve Schale, who also played a key campaign role in President Obama’s victories in Florida.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who also served as governor and is one of Florida’s most highly respected Democrats, agreed.
“I think it’s basically the status quo. He’s said it in different words but I think the basic idea is that he is not a candidate but is reserving the right to reconsider depending on future events,” Graham said.
But by erasing any doubt that he is waiting in the wings, Nelson could make it more difficult for Crist to win over some Democrats skeptical about Crist’s comeback chances. Some donors are worried that the populist Crist will be unable to overcome what is expected to be a blistering campaign by incumbent Gov. Rick Scott bolstered by national Republicans anxious to keep Florida’s governor’s mansion in GOP control. Scott reportedly plans to spend up to $100 million on the campaign.
“The senator is the senator. People listen to a U.S. senator very seriously. If it’s coming from (Nelson), obviously it’s a little different than coming from a third-party,” said state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, slated to take over as head of the House Democratic caucus after next year’s elections.
But Schale said Nelson’s “wait-and-see” approach has been no secret for about a year and has done nothing to dampen fund-raising activities thus far.
Crist raised nearly $1 million in the first 10 days of his campaign “with all of the phone calls from Pete Mitchell happening and none of the walk-back,” Schale said.
“It doesn’t change anything. Charlie Crist is still running for governor. He’s still building a campaign. He’s still out there every day doing the kinds of things you do when you want to get elected governor. There’s nothing about this that’s changing any of that except that Bill Nelson’s not doing that,” he said.
“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”