FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist won the Democratic primary to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday, marking another step in an unlikely political comeback four years after leaving the GOP.
Crist defeated Nan Rich, a former Senate Democratic leader who has been campaigning for governor longer than Crist has been a Democrat. He is the first person in Florida to win the nomination for governor as a Republican and a Democrat. With 39 percent of the precincts counted, Crist had 75 percent to 25 percent for Rich.
He now faces Scott and Libertarian Adrian Wyllie in a race that's already been highly negative. Scott anticipated a Crist victory and has already spent millions of dollars in ads attacking him for political flip-flops, supporting President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and his decision to run for Senate instead of a second term as governor as the state's economy tanked.
Crist was also focused on Scott leading up to the primary, refusing to debate Rich while reminding voters that Scott is a former hospital chain CEO who ran a company that paid a $1.7 billion settlement for Medicaid fraud.
In a victory speech in Ft. Lauderdale, Crist highlighted his record on education and urged volunteers to help carry out a vigorous campaign against Scott.
"We know what we're running against, what we're up against," he said, at another point telling the crowd he wanted to make Florida "Scott free."
"Without you," he told volunteers, "we'd be up against millions of dollars alone."
Crist, 58, has won three statewide races as a Republican, and it wasn't that long ago that he called himself a Ronald Reagan/Jeb Bush Republican. He was once considered a potential running mate for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. He also had the backing of GOP leaders in a 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate -- until Marco Rubio used an image of Crist hugging President Barack Obama to chase Crist from the primary. Crist lost an independent bid for the seat Rubio now holds.
After campaigning for Obama in 2012, Crist completed his political transition later that year by posting a photo of his voter registration card on Twitter during an event at the White House.
He now hopes he can inspire Democratic voters who have opposed him in five statewide races. As a Republican, Crist was elected education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. He lost a U.S. Senate race as a Republican in 1998 and as an independent in 2010.
Despite initially campaigning as a strong conservative in the 2010 Senate race, Crist was widely considered a moderate Republican governor supported by some Democrats.
He vetoed an abortion bill and a teacher merit pay bill that were priorities for Republicans in 2010 and was a leader on climate change issues as governor.
Retired teacher Ann Long, 75 and a longtime Democrat from Miami, said she voted for Crist.
"I liked him when he was a Republican governor, and I thought he had the best chance of winning. He seemed to run the state well," Long said.
Scott had only minor primary opposition. He is seeking his second term after spending $73 million of his and his wife's money to win the governor's office four years ago.
Scott was elected without a majority of the vote in a close race with former Florida CFO Alex Sink. He campaigned as a tea party conservative advocating for less government spending and making the state more business friendly.
But Scott has transitioned from a political outsider seeking to shake up government to a candidate who is advocating for more spending on education, the environment and other programs.