MIAMI – Bill Clinton is lending his political star power to Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who is locked in a tight race for his old job in the nation's largest swing state.
The former president on Friday headlined a rally in Miami where he implored Democrats to defy historical trends and turn out and vote in November.
"We're great at doing what's right if there's a presidential election on the ballot but we're not nearly as good as our Republican opponents are at showing up in the midterm elections," Clinton said. "The whole shebang is going to depend on who shows up."
Speaking to several hundred supporters, Clinton painted Crist as a bipartisan conciliator who would rebuild the middle class by raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women and expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of Floridians. He cast incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott as a multimillionaire who has favored corporate interests.
"If you're trying to raise a kid or two on the minimum wage, you need somebody with the facts to be on your side, and Charlie Crist will be on your side," Clinton said.
The Clinton rally was the first in a series of high-profile events featuring Democratic heavyweights designed to boost party enthusiasm for Crist, a former Republican governor who has run four statewide races on the GOP ticket as well as one as an independent.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is set to appear with Crist in Florida on Monday, while Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is weighing a 2016 White House bid, will campaign with the Democratic nominee on Sept. 20.
While Crist easily secured his new party's nomination last month, his campaign must still reassure some of the key Democratic activists who have opposed him throughout his political career. He also must work to overcome an unprecedented barrage of negative advertising, which has hurt his popularity and helped erase his lead in public polls. Scott has spent more than $25 million, much of it portraying Crist as a "slick politician" and "lousy governor."
Speaking to a half-empty ballroom at the Friday evening rally, Clinton asked Democrats to spread the word that Crist's political conversion is for real. He focused his comments on hot-button topics that resonate with some of the party's most loyal voters, including women, Hispanics and African-Americans.
Standing next to Crist, the former president reminded supporters that when Crist was a Republican governor he extended early voting hours in the 2008 presidential election and enacted the automatic restoration of voting rights for former nonviolent felons -- an effort, he noted, that Scott has since undone. He also recalled voting restrictions that Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature enacted before the 2012 election, measures that resulted in long lines on Election Day.
Later, Clinton, a native Southerner, invoked the Jim Crow South and its history of poll taxes designed to prevent black voters from casting ballots. "For me, when somebody messes with the right to vote, I take it personally," he said to roaring applause.
Clinton's appearance is a clear sign of the gubernatorial race's importance to national Democrats.
Retaking the governor's office in the nation's largest swing state would give the long-suffering state party a governing and political platform to try to reverse decades of conservative rule, build its candidate bench and help lay the groundwork for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
During his trip to Miami, Clinton also visited with his former attorney general, Janet Reno, who has been ailing with Parkinson's disease. The former president and Donna Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and a former Clinton Health & Human Services secretary, spent an hour with Reno and her family at the family's house in the Kendall section of Miami.
"We had a wonderful visit with him and it was very kind of him to come," said Reno's sister, Maggy Hurchalla. "He told us stories — he was Bill Clinton at his best."