ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Hillary Clinton’s pathway to the White House rests in Charlie Crist’s sweaty hands.
The former Florida governor is running against incumbent Republican Rep. David Jolly in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which is dominated by Pinellas County, arguably the most important swing county in the most critical swing state in the nation.
The presidential race is extremely close in Florida, with the Real Clear Politics polling average giving Donald Trump an edge of just 0.8 percentage points. That means every twitch in tight areas could prove decisive, and nowhere in the state is the race tighter than Pinellas County.
“The Republicans cannot win the White House without Florida,” said Susan McGrath, chairwoman of the Pinellas County Democrats. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to be able to perform, and you see that from the attention you receive from the national campaign.”
The importance of the county to the presidential race is underscored by the revolving door of prominent national surrogates who show up in this tiny area bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence spoke to a rally here Monday, followed immediately by Bill Clinton, who on Tuesday made his second visit to the county in a month.
“It’s very important to Hillary and to me that you give [Crist] a big vote,” the former president said at a raucous community center in the district Tuesday evening, citing the his wife’s need for a supportive Democratic contingent in the House to prevent obstruction from Republicans.
Just over a week after Halloween, voters in the county will find themselves in the midst of something of a freak show—both Jolly and Crist are, well, idiosyncratic candidates for the House of Representatives.
In the past six years, Crist has run for senator as a Republican and an independent, then for governor as a Democrat, and finally now for Congress. “We always think it’s the last gasp for Charlie and it never is,” sighed Nick DiCeglie, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. “He simply cannot stay in one spot for very long.”
Crist is also known for his trademark glowing white hair and overwhelming fear of sweating—a disagreement over an electric fan at Crist’s podium nearly upended a gubernatorial debate in 2014.
His opponent this time around, Jolly, is a politician with ties to Scientology, a religion created by an American science-fiction writer in the 1950s that has drawn criticism for opposing psychiatric medications and is accused of being a cult. Clearwater, which is in the district, is home to the “spiritual headquarters” of the religion.
Neither Jolly nor Crist were initially supposed to run in this district. Jolly was slated to run for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat until Marco Rubio flip-flopped and decided that he would run for re-election. Crist declared that he wouldn’t run for office in 2016, but later opted to throw his hat in the ring for the congressional race after redistricting gave the district a Democratic advantage.
“Charlie Crist was not in this district before, and now his home falls in this district. It should be a seat that has a Democratic pickup,” McGrath said. “David Jolly is well-liked by Republicans, and Charlie Crist is well-known, and well-liked by Democrats, even if he hasn't always been one… it should be Charlie’s to lose.”
Despite an uncertain race, neither Jolly nor Crist have been especially eager for attention. Jolly’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment, and Crist’s campaign declined to make the candidate or a surrogate available to discuss the dynamics of the race.
Indeed, Crist’s campaign seems ready to rest on the efforts of the national Democratic campaign. When Bill Clinton appeared in the district Tuesday to encourage voters to vote for Crist and Hillary Clinton, the former governor delivered a short speech that leaned heavily on Hillary’s slogans. Crist then left the stage with a ton of time to spare—creating a long gap in the program that left audience members twiddling their thumbs.
“I know you’re ‘with her,’ aren’t you? If you’re with her, let’s let the world know,” Crist said, in a speech that was no more than three minutes long—conspicuously short for any politician. “When she gets elected, we will be ‘stronger together’!”
Both Hillary and Bill Clinton appeared in Florida on Tuesday, leaving the clear impression that their time in the state was to push women and minority voters to turn out for Florida’s early voting process. Bill Clinton appeared in predominantly African-American area of Wildwood, in Pinellas County, to give a barnburner of a speech, riffing on infrastructure spending, student-debt refinancing, and the cost of a gigawatt hour of wind power in Ohio.
But he began his speech with a nod to African Americans in the audience, reflecting on the legacy of poll taxes and the denial of voting rights to black voters.
“I’m a 70-year-old white Southerner,” Clinton said. “I know what Make America Great Again means.’”
“It was super,” gushed Aretha Butler, a 68-year-old black veteran who served 28 years in the Army. “What President Obama has done over the past eight years is make it great, not ‘great again.’ With Hillary, we want to continue this roll we’re on… Trump wants to put us back to when I was young, and you had to the black, white drinking fountains.”
Pinellas County, where Bill Clinton spoke, serves as the anchor of the I-4 corridor, an east-west highway dense with undecided voters.
“This whole I-4 corridor is the No. 1 media market in the state. This always decides statewide elections. We’ve been preparing for this moment for the last two years,” DiCeglie said.
North of the I-4 corridor, in Dade City, Hillary Clinton made an appeal to female and Hispanic voters. Hundreds braved the scorching afternoon sun to hear her speak—and she was introduced by Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe whom Trump once taunted as ‘Miss Piggy.”
Machado proved popular with the crowd—“No way!” cried a Clinton supporter, with glee, when she was called to the stage—and interspersed Spanish repeatedly through her speech.
“Hillary has been fighting for women, children, and Latinos, just average people like me and you, her entire life,” Machado said. “[Trump] thinks he can do whatever [he wants].”
“Together we’re going to say loudly and clearly, ‘No, Trump!’ He’s not getting away with it.”
For her part, Clinton hammered Trump for his treatment of women, his position on the deportation of undocumented immigrants, and his contention that a federal judge of Mexican heritage wasn’t capable of being impartial.
“Who acts like this? I’ll tell you who: a bully,” Clinton said. “We need to work hard that our boys, just like our girls, have that sense of positive energy… respecting women. In fact, all of us should respect each other, in our country.”
Ultimately, though, Clinton wasn’t in the state just to give another stump speech. More than 4 million Floridians have already cast their ballots in the presidential election, with Republicans gaining a narrow edge.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Why do you keep coming back to Florida?’” the former secretary of state said, in front of a large American flag, as a handful of Trump supporters down the road called for her to be locked up. “It’s a beautiful place, and I’ve got lots of friends, but it’s really important in this election. Florida could decide who the next president is.”