- The Washington Times - Friday, April 30, 2010

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced in a highly anticipated move Thursday that he was withdrawing from the Republican primary for U.S. Senate to run as an independent, finalizing a political divorce with the state’s conservatives, who long have viewed the moderate as unfit for the GOP.

During a rally in a downtown park in his hometown of St. Petersburg, Mr. Crist said his decision to run for the Senate without party affiliation “in may ways says more about our state and our nation than it does about me.”

“I could have chosen to stay in the primary, but frankly, for me it’s your decision,” Mr. Crist said to a cheering crowd. “It is a decision for all of the people of Florida to make, and so that’s why we go straight to November.”

Mr. Crist said that while the “easy thing” would have been to run for re-election as governor, “For me it’s never been about doing what’s easy; it’s been about doing what’s right for the people first.”

Mr. Crist didn’t mention his main Republican challenger, Marco Rubio, the former Florida House speaker who in recent months has cruised to double-digit poll leads over the governor for the Aug. 24 GOP primary.

Recent polls suggest Mr. Rubio still would defeat Mr. Crist and Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek in a three-way race, though the margin is much tighter.

The once-popular Mr. Crist, who just a year ago was considered a shoo-in to win his party’s primary and the probable winner in November’s general election, is fighting for his political life. His support among Republicans began to erode almost immediately after the conservative Mr. Rubio entered the race about a year ago.

Mr. Rubio, 38, a Miami native whose parents immigrated to the state from Cuba, has been hailed by conservatives as a better representative of the party’s core values than Mr. Crist.

Reaction to Mr. Crist’s announcement from the Republican establishment was swift and terse.

“This decision is not about policy or principles - it is about what he believes is in his political self-interest,” said former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said that while Mr. Crist has served his party well, his decision to run as an independent was “disappointing.”

“He left this party. This party did not leave him,” Mr. Steele said in a statement released after Mr. Crist’s announcement. “His decision will in no way impede our path to victory in Florida.”

Mr. Crist’s fall from Republican grace has been nothing short of stunning, say Sunshine State political analysts.

“Nothing like this has ever happen before in Florida; we have not had a candidate of his stature and with his resources run as an independent,” said Robert Crew Jr., a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Mr. Crist lost major political points with party faithful when he publicly and physically embraced President Obama when the president visited Florida last year to pitch his $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Other moves, such as Mr. Crist’s appointment of a Democrat to the Florida Supreme Court and his veto of a bill to make it easier to fire teachers and to link teacher pay to student test scores, also were considered unforgivable blunders by many conservatives.

“Party regulars and party activists … are after somebody who is going to tow the party line in Washington, so I think it’s more about that right now,” said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus, who has followed Mr. Crist’s career for years. “They want a consistent party vote in Washington because the national scene is so polarized.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate Republicans’ campaign chairman, who recruited Mr. Crist into the Senate race, said Thursday the governor’s fall shows the danger of Washington politicians trying to pick winners and losers in the midst of anti-Washington sentiment.

“In this political environment, it’s not necessarily helpful for candidates running in states to have the national party chairmen endorse them,” Mr. Cornyn, Texas Republican, told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Cornyn said he expects Mr. Crist to be asked to refund many campaign contributions and also said the governor will have trouble replenishing his treasury because he’ll have a tough time finding a new base of donor support.

Much of Mr. Crist’s campaign staff is expected to resign, and the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies said Thursday it’s quitting Mr. Crist’s campaign team.

Nevertheless, political experts familiar with Florida say it would be wrong to dismiss Mr. Crist as a legitimate contender. He still holds the gubernatorial bully pulpit - a huge advantage over his two main challengers. And his name recognition and considerable appeal to independents and Democrats dwarfs that of Mr. Rubio.

“Nobody, including the Republican Party, knows what the Florida electorate is going to do on this,” Mr. Crew said. “In the past, right-wing candidates have gotten beat in that primary, and so it’s hard to know how the Republican electorate is going to respond to this.”

c Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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