Florida governor bolts GOP to run as independent

Florida politics are rarely dull. But Thursday, they entered another dimension — the third one.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to bolt the Republican Party and run for the U.S. Senate as an independent promises to transform the state into a battleground for competing electoral themes that are likely to echo nationwide. Crist, who was badly trailing rival Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination, now plans to face Rubio and the likely Democratic candidate, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, in November.

Crist, the sitting governor, is trying to position himself as the outsider — the role originally claimed by Rubio.

“Our political system is broken,” Crist said at an event in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Thursday. Voters, he said, “are tired of things not getting done for them.”

Rubio, whose shooting-star challenge to Crist was fueled in part by “tea party” activist anger, now finds himself with the mantle of the established, endorsed Republican candidate.

Before Wednesday, Rubio seemed assured of a victory over Crist in the GOP primary to the point that some expected Crist to drop out of the race entirely, leaving Rubio to enter the general election as the favorite against Meek.

Now Meek’s campaign has new life with the prospect that Crist and Rubio will split Republican votes. It all promises to give Florida the most entertaining Senate race in the nation.

Rubio faces a difficult choice. Does he allow Crist to claim the political center, or does he abandon the activists who propelled his insurgent candidacy and move toward moderation?

If he sticks to his guns, his candidacy will serve as a test of whether a strongly conservative Republican can beat both a moderate one and a Democrat in a straight-up contest.

“If Rubio is perceived as a tea party guy, that will turn off the moderate voters,” said Matt Bennett, a political analyst with Third Way, a centrist think-tank in Washington. “He’s going to have to finesse it a little.”

But Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist in Washington, said Rubio “has to stick with the campaign model that helped him thrive to this point … tapping into the discontent that Florida voters have with Washington.”

At its heart, Crist’s strategy is simple. Despite his unpopularity with conservatives, he enjoys the greatest name recognition among the three candidates. If he can remain afloat until November, he can hope that once inside the voting booth, voters will simply choose the person they know best.

But Rubio and Meek will have ample opportunity to paint Crist as an opportunist who pursued political ambition over principle. And they will have money. Rubio, now the presumptive party torchbearer, can fully benefit from the national Republican fund-raising machine. Meek will be bolstered by a Democratic establishment that will want to exploit the GOP rift and reclaim a Senate seat currently held by a Republican, George LeMieux.

Meek is “in a commanding position” to win a three-way race, said his spokesman, Adam Sharon.

Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist in Tampa, thinks that if Crist can survive a likely dry spell over the summer, donors will move toward him if he is still a factor. “A lot of business interests don’t care if you’re a Republican, Democrat, independent or whatever. If polls show him in the race, people will open up their checkbooks,” Ingram said.

Brian Ballard, a top Republican fundraiser and key ally of Crist, said Thursday that he’s standing by him. “Most of his key guys are,” Ballard said. “I think 95% of his fundraising team will stay with him.”

“A lot of Republicans are going to be happy he’s on the ballot,” he said.

It appears that in the short term, Crist will be asked to refund some money to Republican senators who donated to his campaign and pay back $10,000 to the National Republican Senate Committee, which backed him even as Rubio’s popularity among the GOP rank-and-file surged.

The tea party movement called Crist’s departure from the GOP a victory for their cause. “We basically pushed him out of the election because of his tax-and-spend policies,” said Everett Wilkinson, coordinator for the Florida Tea Party Patriots. “Before, the Republican Party let these people slide and now they’re making their candidates represent the people.”

Another hurdle lurks for Crist — and perhaps for Rubio as well. Federal investigators are probing the use of credit cards by members of the Florida Republican Party for personal expenses. Rubio has faced questions about the use of such a card when he was speaker of the Florida House. A longtime ally of Crist, Jim Greer, is also embroiled in the investigation.

Kathleen Hennessey of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report