By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 11:49 PM
Gov. Charlie Crist is the man in the middle in Florida's high-stakes race for the Senate, a candidate without a party whose hopes of moving from Tallahassee to Washington depend on his ability to fend off a squeeze play from his Democratic and Republican rivals.
The three-way campaign for the Senate is the latest in a series of important races in Florida - including the 2000 recount that helped define red-blue divisions in America - but with dynamics new to the Sunshine State.
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place Tuesday night, when Rep. Kendrick Meek routed wealthy businessman and political newcomer Jeff Greene in the Democratic primary. The Republican nominee, former state House speaker Marco Rubio, secured his spot on the ballot last spring when Crist quit the GOP primary after it was clear he would lose.
The lineup in Florida offers voters choices across the political spectrum. Rubio is conservative enough to have aroused the passions of "tea party" activists as he began to gain ground on Crist in the early stages of the campaign. He has consolidated GOP establishment support as well.
Meek is at the other end of the spectrum, a relatively liberal Democrat from South Florida with a base in the black community and experience in grass-roots politics across the state. But he lacks money and recognition.
Crist has moved back and forth; once a conservative Republican, he has lurched left since leaving his party in an effort to attract enough Democrats to go with the independent voters he is counting on to win in November.
But the unusual dynamics of a three-way contest make it difficult to handicap. At this point only one thing is clear: Meek is the underdog.
Republicans hold the Florida seat, but a series of events have led to the three-man battle. First, former senator Mel Martinez decided to quit the Senate before his term ended. Then Crist appointed longtime confidant George LeMieux to fill out the term, with the understanding that he would step down after November.
That would have left Crist with a relatively clear path to the Senate. But an embrace of President Obama's economic program - punctuated by an actual embrace when the president came to the state to tout his stimulus package - and the entry of Rubio as a long-shot candidate led to Crist's decision to quit the GOP.
Whether Crist has damaged himself by the decision to run as an independent or whether he has cleverly found the route to political survival is the central issue that voters will decide.
Republicans desperately want to hold the seat and will go to great lengths to help Rubio win it. In a year in which they anticipate gaining a substantial number of Senate seats, they can ill afford to see one in their hands slip away, particularly in a mega-state as important as Florida.
Complicating calculations for the Democrats is the question of whether Meek can become a viable candidate. Pre-primary polls showed him trailing Rubio and Crist by a significant margin. Unless he demonstrates his ability to consolidate Democrats, party leaders will be conflicted about how energetically to back him.
If Meek does not demonstrate viability, the question party leaders will face is whether they ought to cut him loose in the hope that Crist defeats Rubio and then caucuses with the Democrats.
But even if they wanted to, it may not be so easy. Meek had the support of both Obama and former president Bill Clinton in the primary. And White House and party officials will feel pressure, from black politicians and others, not to abandon him.
That is why Meek began to try to disqualify Crist in the eyes of their respective party bases with a series of e-mails Wednesday that pointed out the governor's past positions on abortion, health care, tax cuts and other issues. The package included a St. Petersburg Times story from November 2009 in which the governor said, "It's hard to be more conservative than I am on the issues."
"Crist can't win," screamed a headline in a strategy memo issued Wednesday by Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk. "The apparent strength that Crist is currently registering in the polls will not last," he predicted.
But Rubio and the GOP must also prevent Crist from regaining traction among enough Republicans to win. Rubio, a Cuban American, began the general election Wednesday with a positive television commercial in which he talked about his immigrant parents and the American story. At the same time, spokesman Todd Harris took aim at Crist as untrustworthy.
"It's impossible for anyone to know what Charlie Crist will do in Washington because he is ultimately the typical politician who will say and do whatever he has to in order to get elected," Harris said.
Crist on Tuesday said he is uniquely suited to make a difference in a polarized capital. Calling Washington broken, he said, "I will take the best ideas - whether they come from Democrats or Republicans - to get results for the people of Florida, because the only way to craft common sense solutions to our problems is to reach across party lines - to listen and work together."
Traditional rules of strategy don't necessarily apply in three-way contests. That makes the Florida race all the more compelling. Whatever the outcome, Florida voters are in for another wild ride this fall.