TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — This week could make or break Nikki Fried's campaign for governor.
On Thursday, Florida's agriculture commissioner faces presumptive frontrunner U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., in the first and only primary debate scheduled for the two Democrats.
Fried is lagging in most polling, fundraising and endorsements — but is hoping to capitalize on a solid performance.
"Charlie can have all the endorsements he wants, but at the end of the day, I got the people," Fried told us, Tuesday morning. "That is what matters."
Fried said she planned to hold Crist, a former Florida Republican governor, "accountable" for what she said are inconsistent positions on Democratic priorities like gay marriage and abortion. She suggested voters couldn't trust him to hold firm on party goals.
"Charlie has only taken care of one thing and one thing only, and that's himself and his career," Fried said. "No matter what he says today, people aren't going to believe him because he said the polar opposite, you know, 15 years ago."
Crist's campaign didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Fried's most recent rhetoric, but attacks alone won't be enough, political experts said.
Dr. Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor emerita, thought Fried needed to show the party she could engage vital parts of the electorate, which might make the difference when facing incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.
"To posit herself as the one who can really reach a key demographic that Democrats haven't done really well with lately," MacManus said. "That would be younger voters and younger voters of color in particular."
Crist, for the moment, is spending much of his political stumping focused almost exclusively on the Republican governor.
While speaking in Tampa about his plans for education Tuesday, Crist condemned DeSantis for supporting new laws this year that limit classroom race discussions and ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-third grade.
"By injecting his radical, right-wing politics into our children's classroom, he has brought politics into the classroom," Crist said. "We are going to get politics out of the classroom."
Crist campaign officials, meanwhile, have called his lead over Fried "untouchable." Their most recent internal poll, conducted late last month, showed the congressman had 55% of the vote, including a lead among women voters and African American voters. Fried sat at 34%.
Crist's supporters have also pushed the agriculture commissioner to drop out and Democrats to pool resources before facing the governor.
"We do need to make this primary quick and easy," Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, told us last month. "Focus on what will be very tough general."
A dropout is unlikely to happen, however. Fried's campaign has said she has momentum and grassroots support that will only continue to grow as her name recognition increases.
"We may agree on policy positions today," said Fried. "But I certainly don't trust Charlie, and the people of our state shouldn’t either."
NBC 6 in Miami and Telemundo will co-host the Thursday debate. It starts at 7 p.m. EDT and is expected to last an hour.