It's come to this: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, once the certain GOP nominee for the Senate, is now being advised that if he wants to save his political career it will have to be as an independent. If he is to claim the Senate seat vacated last year by Mel Martinez (R) — the seat now occupied by Crist's ally, caretaker appointment George LeMieux — he will have to leave the Republicans and run against the two parties from the outside.
The reasons for his fall are not hard to understand. My blog post of Feb. 11 focused on what turned out to be the signature mistake in the Crist campaign: his 2009 embrace of a then-popular President Obama, who was down in Fort Myers to sell his $787 billion economic stimulus program. It literally was an embrace; Crist gave the president a hug. For all of Crist's protestations that he really didn't "endorse" the stimulus package, that he was just showing respect for the president of the United States, and besides, the Obama plan has saved the jobs of 20,000 Florida teachers ... well, fine, but that stuff doesn't work in the rough and tumble of politics.
And it certainly doesn't work when your opponent is Marco Rubio, backed by an angry Tea Party movement that distrusts anything and everything to do with Obama.
Just as Joe Lieberman was castigated in Connecticut for his famous hug with President Bush — it cost him the Democratic nomination in 2006 — Crist has been trailing Rubio by double digits for months in every poll, with no sign of improvement. On Saturday, Mitt Romney came down to the Sunshine State to rain on Crist's parade with an enthusiastic endorsement, preceded by two others 2008 presidential wannabes, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani's own politics would make one think that the former NYC mayor would prefer Crist. But in endorsing Rubio, Giuliani complained that Crist had promised him his backing for the Florida presidential primary only to renege and get behind McCain. As for Romney, Crist's endorsement of McCain — which came three days before the primary — was seen as critical to ending Romney's hopes.
Even Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who endorsed Crist two years ago when he announced his candidacy — and when Rubio was not even on the radar screen — said yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union," when asked if he still supports the gov., that Florida voters should make that choice.
Crist's standing with his fellow Florida Republicans took another hit last week when he vetoed a sweeping education bill passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature that would make it easier to fire teachers if student achievement failed to improve. The veto prompted former Gov. Jeb Bush, an influential conservative who has remained neutral in the race, to weigh in with criticism, and it's one that forced Crist's campaign manager, ex-Sen. Connie Mack, to resign.
If there is no longer any suspense about who will win the Aug. 24 primary, there is growing uncertainty about Crist's plans. He has until April 30 to decide whether he wants to leave the GOP and run as an independent. The same Quinnipiac Poll that had Rubio up 56-33 percent over Crist showed Crist with a slight lead over Rubio and the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, in a three-way race. (The poll also had Crist beating Meek by a larger margin than Rubio over Meek.) Crist has repeatedly denied any plans to quit his party but not everyone is convinced.
Sen. LeMieux, the Crist ally, said this morning on MSNBC that he has "every reason to believe that Charlie Crist is running as a Republican and this independent thing will not happen." He said he spoke to Crist this weekend and that the question of an independent run "didn't even come up." That led to this incredulous comment from St. Pete Times' political editor Adam Smith:
Really?! You were his campaign manager, chief of staff, close friend, and you didn't mention the topic that the political universe is talking about?
Smith also notes that National Review's Rich Lowry, a Rubio supporter, has made a "good case" against Crist running as an independent. "But one giant reason he should is that it may be his only hope of becoming a U.S. Senator."