Florida waits to see whether Crist will stay Republican or go independent

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has seen conservatives rally behind his rival in the GOP Senate primary and may run as an independent.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has seen conservatives rally behind his rival in the GOP Senate primary and may run as an independent. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has become the star of his own personal soap opera.

Will he abandon his faltering bid for the Republican nomination for the Senate and run as an independent? Will he, playing good soldier, quietly step to the sidelines and live to fight another day? Will he stay and fight against Marco Rubio, the charismatic young Cuban American who has captured the hearts of conservatives around the country?

The answer will come this week. The national implications are clear. Should Crist quit the Republican primary and run for the Senate under the "no party affiliation" banner, Florida will become ground zero for a test of whether voters in a state that plays a crucial role in presidential politics see the Republican Party as having been captured by its right wing.

If Crist goes the independent route, his decision will be interpreted as the most significant example yet of the "tea party" takeover of the GOP, given the early and enthusiastic support Rubio received from that movement's activists and supporters.

But the Crist saga cannot be so neatly categorized. This has been an unprecedented establishment conservative revolt against a sitting governor seen as putting personal ambition ahead of political conviction.

Many Republicans believe that Crist has made up his mind to run as an independent. Old friends and advisers, many of whom think Crist would be making a fatal mistake by going the independent route, have been shut out by a politician who likes to hear what he wants to hear. A Crist friend says be careful to leap to conclusions before the governor announces his intentions.

Meanwhile, the whole will-he-or-won't-he drama plays out against a backdrop of potential scandal involving Republican politicians. Federal investigators are looking into the questionable spending habits of the Republican Party of Florida under its former chairman, Jim Greer (a Crist ally), and its former executive director -- and also, reportedly, Rubio's use of a party credit card for personal expenses.

Where that investigation is heading and who it might touch before November isn't known but it makes some Republicans exceedingly nervous, though Rubio's team insists he has nothing to hide or fear. "We are a thousand percent confident there is no story there," said Rubio adviser Todd Harris.

If there was a time when Florida politics were more awash in rumor and speculation, no one can remember it. People describe the cascading events as a Grisham novel, as Shakespearean, as a marvelous, maddening circus unlike anything they've ever seen.

The Crist drama is many things. It is the story of an ambitious and popular politician who never truly won the hearts and minds of his party's base. It is the story of tribal rivalries within Florida's Republican establishment in the post-Jeb Bush era. And it is an example of a politician who misjudged a political environment that was changing under his nose.

But this is not a case of a conservative fringe vs. the party establishment. The list of Rubio's endorsements makes that clear. He has the support of former vice president Dick Cheney, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (smarting from Crist's reneging on a pledge to endorse the mayor for president in 2008), former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and on and on.

Crist has the support of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a repayment of the endorsement Crist gave to McCain on the eve of the Florida primary two years ago. But McCain has made it clear he will not be with Crist if the governor leaves the party. Nor, of course, will Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supported Crist early and now has egg on its face.

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