Clinton says he tried to talk Florida Senate candidate out of race

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 12:15 AM

Former president Bill Clinton tried to persuade Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek to drop out of the Florida Senate race, he acknowledged Thursday night, saying that Meek didn't have enough money to win the race.

Clinton told the congressman that he could make a greater impact if he quit the three-way race and endorsed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I), a Clinton official confirmed Thursday.

But Clinton himself would not elaborate in an interview with CNN on the specifics of his conversations with Meek, a longtime friend.

"I knew it was being discussed, people had discussed it on and off. . . . It was no secret," Clinton told CNN.

Clinton first worked through his senior adviser Doug Band to make the deal before getting personally involved, spokesman Matt McKenna confirmed. The discussions were first reported Thursday evening by Politico.

Crist was the person who asked Clinton to intervene, through a call to Band, a source close to Clinton told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent on Thursday night.

Crist said on MSNBC that he knew of the conversations between Clinton and Meek. Asked how, he replied, "I had numerous phone calls with people very close to President Clinton."

Meek seemed amenable to leaving the race, McKenna said, and on two occasions he nearly went through with it but ultimately changed his mind.

Meek denied that Thursday night, saying in a statement that he "was never dropping out of this race, is never dropping out of this race, and will never drop out of this race."

Florida polls have consistently showed Meek running a distant third in the Senate race, behind front-runner Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Crist.

The winner of next week's election will succeed Sen. George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff. The governor appointed LeMieux in 2009 after Mel Martinez resigned, with the understanding that he would clear the seat for Crist this November.

But he didn't account for the surge of Rubio, his challenger in the Republican primary, amid the rise of tea party groups in the state.His standing among conservatives also suffered from a much-publicized hug of President Obama in 2008 after the president promised federal aid for Florida.

By April, Crist knew he was doomed to lose the primary, and he quit the GOP to run as an independent - calculating that he could beat Rubio in the general election by winning over the state's moderate Democrats.

Yet Rubio has led every public poll since mid-August.

A Suffolk University poll two weeks found that, should Meek drop out of the race, 56 percent of his supporters said they would throw their support to Crist. Rubio would add only 8 percent of Meek supporters.

Last week, Clinton spent two days in Florida to campaign on Meek's behalf. He also used that time to try to persuade Meek to quit the race, Politico reported.

Meek, who won a four-man Democratic primary in August and is aiming to become the first African American elected statewide in Florida, cites Clinton frequently on the campaign trail and considers him a political mentor.

The two men have been close friends since they first met in Tallahassee in the early 1990s. Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, was visiting Florida's state capitol, and Meek, then a young state trooper, was dispatched to pick him up at the airport. The men bonded over their drive.

Clinton has campaigned for Meek more than for any other candidate in the nation this year.The former president has headlined fundraisers or stumped for Meek's Senate bid more than a half-dozen times.

Republican Party chairman Michael S. Steele decried Clinton's dealings, saying they send "a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans. One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race - in the 11th hour - a qualified black candidate."

Blacks make up roughly 10 percent of the state's electorate.

Staff writers Philip Rucker, Chris Cillizza and Scott Butterworth contributed to this report.

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