By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; A02
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.
People like Charlie Crist. He is genial and friendly, and he goes out of his way to make people want to like him. Another thing to know about him is that he is enormously ambitious. He had his eyes on the vice presidency in 2008, barely a year into his governorship, and his decision to jump to the Senate race midway through his first term as governor speaks to a man in a hurry.
A third reality is that his political touch has been missing of late. Early in his tenure as governor, he seemed to have perfect pitch with the electorate, and his approval ratings showed it. But one Florida Republican said of him, "You can say what you want about him, but you could say he had pretty good political instincts. . . . Those instincts seem to have gone out the window."
Crist's embrace of President Obama at a Florida appearance in early 2009, and of the president's stimulus package, was the moment he began to lose favor with Republicans. His recent veto of an education bill that would have tied teacher pay to student performance -- long a goal of many Republican politicians -- may have marked an irrevocable break with his party.
Jeb Bush, his predecessor, issued a seething statement of criticism of the veto. It's clear he thinks Crist has taken the party in the wrong direction as governor. More recently, other prominent Republicans have heaped more criticism on Crist. Cheney, endorsing Rubio last week, said Crist has shown repeatedly that "he cannot be trusted in Washington to take on the Obama agenda, because on issue after issue he actually supports that agenda."
Those kinds of words, according to Crist loyalists, are making it easier for the governor to leave his party and go the independent route. He will have to declare his intentions by Friday.
Republicans who are urging Crist to quit the race but stay in the party are doing so both because they fear that his candidacy as an independent could cost the GOP a Senate seat in November and because they think Crist still could have a future in the party.
The question now is whether Crist is simply on a personal crusade to advance his career at any cost to his party, or whether he has a broader mission and message that his party is losing its way by moving too far right and with its confrontational stance toward the president.