If former Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement of Barack Obama did anything, it fired the first official salvo in the ever-present fight for the independent voter in Florida between Mitt Romney and the president in 2012.
(Independent voters traditionally determine elections in the nation's largest swing state and, as Florida Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry confirmed on Monday, “Mitt Romney cannot win the presidency without Florida.")
But the chatter among Republicans at the RNC today is that Crist's endorsement is a sign of a more interesting fight to come -- from their vantage point -- in 2014.
That would be the fight between the potential candidacy of Alex Sink, the Democrat and former CFO who lost to Republican Rick Scott in 2010 by a narrow 62,000 votes, and Charlie Crist for the Democratic nomination in 2014. Or between Crist and whichever other Democratic alternative may be named. (Among them: Fort Lauerdale Mayor Jack Seiler, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, former state Sen. Rod Smith and state Sen. Nan Rich.)
The mere suggestion that Crist would switch from no-party affiliation to the Democratic Party already is stirring up trouble in Democratic circles. "Some party leaders who are encouraging him and others who are very much against it,'' one party insider told us.
Former state Sen. Dan Gelber believes Crist may help Obama with Republicans and independent voters who believe "the GOP has become simply too extreme." But he's not ready to embrace the idea of Crist as a candidate.
"I think party insiders are over thinking the prospect of Crist embracing Democrats and vice versa,'' Gelber said. "The Republican reaction was obviously an over reaction as they acted like Crist had committed a savage crime with his endorsement. It's a long way to 2014, but Scott should be worried because lots of right-thinking Republicans and Independents feel totally at sea with his party and policies. Crist's endorsement is simply another proof point of that sentiment."
Here's what we'll be watching: if Crist starts campaigning with the president in Florida, building up his political gravitas and planting the seeds for a new coalition of moderates and independents, we can all assume he's ready to run. As our AP colleague Gary Fineout has pointed out, the signs are already abundant that Crist is ready for a run -- the highway billboards, the Morgan & Morgan television ad, the endorsement of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
One Democratic consultant told us, that Alex Sink holds all the cards. "If Alex Sink decides to run, Crist is more likely to get out of the Democratic primary but if Sink decides to sit it out and gets behind a Democratic opponent of Crist's, he's in bigger trouble."
That's also trouble for the Democratic Party, this consultant warns. "This is the first time since Bob Martinez where we have a true opportunity to knock out a Republican governor who is hated across the board. Why would Democrats risk making the 2014 election about Charlie Crist and not Rick Scott?"
These scenarios makes Republicans practically giddy with glee. "How desperate are they?" mused Allison DeFoor, a long-time Florida Republican activist and advisor to governors. "I think it's more trouble for Democrats, particularly Alex Sink, than it is for Republicans."
Curry is already preparing his playbook and ready to fire up his barbs. "How’s a guy who is pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, anti- civil unions and is to the right of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on abortion -- how is he going to run as a Democrat,” he asked reporters Monday.
Will he launch television ads to drive that point home? "If Charlie Crist wants to try to play ball and rain on our parade, we're going to respond,'' he said.