By Karen Tumulty
Friday, April 30, 2010; 12:24 PM
ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. -- Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday declared himself a man without a party, launching a desperate bid to save his once seemingly invincible Senate campaign.
"For me, it's never been about doing what's easy. It's been about doing what's right for the people first," he told a crowd of several hundred at a shady bayside park here in his home town. The governor will run as an independent -- or, as the ballot will list him, with "no party affiliation."
Crist's decision to flee the party that incubated his political career says as much about the state of the GOP as it does about the governor. After the Democratic gains of 2006 and 2008, his ideological flexibility was considered an asset, giving him a crossover appeal and the aura of a rising star. But the qualities that might add to his appeal with general-election voters in November made him a marked man in the contested Republican primary taking place against the scorched political landscape of 2010.
The announcement ended weeks of will-he-or-won't-he speculation, and set up a three-way race, the outcome of which is anyone's guess. Barring the unexpected, Crist's Republican opponent will be former state House speaker Marco Rubio, whose insurgency harnessed the anti-establishment fury of the "tea party" movement and turned Crist into a Republican Party pariah.
Where Rubio started out a year ago more than 30 percentage points behind Crist in the primary race, polls now show him running 20 points or more ahead -- leaving the governor to conclude that it was unwinnable. The Democratic candidate probably will be Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is relatively unknown outside his South Florida district and was considered a long shot until Crist's announcement.
Two moments stand as bright road markers on Crist's journey into exile: His embrace of President Obama when the commander in chief came to Florida in early 2009 to sell his economic stimulus plan, and the governor's veto earlier this month of an education bill, championed by conservatives, that would have linked teacher pay to student test scores.
His decision speaks to a paradox that confronts Republicans this year: Even as they are experiencing what may be their best congressional election prospects in more than a decade, the party is engaged in an ideological struggle for its soul.
In Arizona, for instance, Sen. John McCain is embroiled in a primary battle that has revolved around whether the GOP's 2008 presidential standard-bearer is sufficiently conservative. In Utah, Sen. Robert F. Bennett is in danger of losing the party's nomination for a fourth term, largely because of such apostasies as his opposition to an anti-flag-burning amendment and his support for bailing out Wall Street. Crist's announcement also came a year and a day after Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) became a Democrat to avoid defeat in his state's GOP primary.
Yet, even while this internecine warfare rages, Republicans have positioned themselves to pick up seats in some traditionally Democratic states precisely because they have selected candidates who would not pass an ideological purity test. In deep-blue Illinois, for instance, centrist Rep. Mark Kirk has a good chance of winning Obama's old Senate spot. In Delaware, another moderate, Rep. Michael N. Castle, is a strong favorite. And for all the conservative exultation that surrounded Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts, this is someone who supports Roe v. Wade, earned a 100 percent rating from the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 2007 and sided with Democrats to break a GOP filibuster of a $15 billion jobs bill.
In Washington, Senate Republican leaders issued a scathing statement withdrawing their support for the man they had believed would make the Florida race an easy win for the party.
"More than a year ago, Governor Crist asked for our endorsement with a commitment that he would proudly represent Floridians and our party with principled conservative leadership," they wrote. "Quite simply, he did not keep his word."
Crist framed his move as a blow for democracy, one that makes the choice of the state's next senator "a decision for all the people of Florida to make, and that's why we go straight to November."
Will Florida voters buy it as an act of principle -- or of shape-shifting opportunism? "Charlie won't win, but he could possibly be a spoiler," said Al Hoffman, a major Republican fundraiser.
The 2000 presidential election gave the rest of the country a crash course on the complexities of the Sunshine State's multilayered politics, and it remains one of the most closely divided states. But no one other than a Democrat or a Republican has won statewide office since Sidney Johnston Catts was elected governor on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1916.
Crist, 53, has worked in Republican politics since 1989, beginning as state director for then-Sen. Connie Mack, and later served as a state senator, education commissioner and attorney general. Now, he is likely to lose much of his campaign operation, and face demands that he return some of the contributions that built his war chest to $7.6 million, nearly double Rubio's. But others will continue to support him.
"I know that this is uncharted territory," Crist said. "I am aware that after this speech ends, I don't have either party helping me." At that point, a man's voice came from the crowd: "We've got your back."