TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., could further secure his lead in the primary battle for governor.
Crist faces Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a fellow Democrat, in their first and only scheduled debate.
The former governor of Florida has the money and the endorsements. On Thursday evening, he will also have the attention of the state's Democratic Party, said former state Rep. Sean Shaw.
"Democrats are going to be watching, and a lot of minds are going to, probably, be made up based on what happens there," Shaw, a Crist surrogate, said.
Shaw expected Crist would be poised and polished on stage, ready for whatever his opponent had to throw at him. The seasoned former politician said he rarely runs into someone better at Florida politics than Crist.
"Since he's become a Democrat, Charlie has been great" Shaw said. "And there's a reason that the overwhelming majority of elected and former elected have been with Charlie. We trust him. We are with him, and we are ready to go"
Trust will likely be a big focus for Fried.
The agriculture commissioner told us Tuesday that the party should be wary of the former Republican. She has hammered Crist for an inconsistent record on issues like gay marriage and abortion leading up to the debate. Pundits expect the pressure to continue.
"We may agree on policy positions today," Fried said. "But I certainly do not trust Charlie, and the people of our state should not either."
Fried's tactic will likely force Crist into a simultaneous defense of his record while attacking the incumbent. Political experts have said going after Gov. Ron DeSantis will be vital to winning the nomination.
"If you're the frontrunner, you just simply have to exude confidence and convince Democratic voters who are going to vote in the primary you're the best candidate to defeat Ron DeSantis," said Dr. Susan MacManus, University of South Florida professor emerita. "So, that's pretty much his challenge to keep this lead. He has got to exude confidence and that he's the one that can beat the governor."
Crist has been spending almost all of his campaigning focused on DeSantis. It's put him ahead in most polls, though Fried's campaign believes she is closing the gap as her name recognition grows.
Fried is also in hot water with the Crist campaign after suggesting, during an interview Tuesday, that her opponent might not show up to the debate due to COVID.
The Crist campaign offered this statement in response:
"Nikki Fried and her campaign continue to mislead voters to distract attention from her floundering campaign. Charlie is looking forward to taking the debate stage on Thursday, where, unlike the Commissioner, he will share his vision for a Florida united."
NBC 6 in Miami and Telemundo are co-hosting Thursday's debate. The stations have scheduled it to begin at 7 p.m. ET and last an hour.
Florida's primary is Aug. 23.