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Left for dead, Crist refuses to die

Floridian’s independent Senate bid gives GOP grief

Associated Press photographs
THIRD WAY: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, independent candidate for Senate, speaks to reporters after voting Tuesday in St. Petersburg.Associated Press photographs THIRD WAY: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, independent candidate for Senate, speaks to reporters after voting Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
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Charlie Crist, to the surprise of many and the consternation of some, just won't go away.

The Florida governor and Senate hopeful was left for dead politically by many this spring, steadily trailing former state House Speaker Marco Rubio by double digits in GOP polls for the state's open Senate seat. So hopeless seemed Mr. Crist's chance of even surviving the Republican primary that he bolted the party to run as an independent.

But slowly, and with the affable and unassuming manner that has been his trademark since entering politics almost two decades ago, he has climbed back into contention for the seat being vacated by appointed Republican Sen. George LeMieux.

Following Tuesday's state primary, the field is now set: Mr. Crist, running as an independent, will face Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, who won the Democratic primary, and Mr. Rubio in an intriguing November general election battle that could prove a challenge for political handicappers.

"There is, and always was, a path for victory for him. It depended a lot on what he did with it," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "He's essentially had to rebuild from scratch [since leaving the GOP], and he has been doing that and still raising money."

Mr. Crist, 54, began his political career in the Florida Senate as a tough-on-crime lawmaker and Republican Party loyalist. He later developed a more moderate tone that played well in his large and diverse state, helping him win several statewide races, including the governorship in 2006.

His stock within his party was rising so fast that it led to whispers in 2008 that he was in the running as a potential running mate for GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain.

But things began to unravel later in 2009, when he received harsh criticism from Republicans for backing some of Mr. Obama's fiscal policies, particularly the president's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. The governor lost further political points from Republican base voters when he physically embraced Mr. Obama during a visit by the president to Florida last year.

"That just infuriated the right wing of the Republican Party, and I was surprised with how quickly that affected his public standing," said Robert Crew, a political science professor at Florida State University.

Mr. Crist's appointment of a Democrat to the Florida Supreme Court, while keeping in step with his penchant for moderate politics, was also harshly criticized by conservatives.

By this spring, the governor was trailing Mr. Rubio, a Cuban-American considered a rising star of the party's conservative wing, by 20 percentage points or more in several polls.

But the Crist campaign chugged along. Few big-time donors and supporters abandoned him after his decision to leave the Republican Party. The governor had more than $8 million of campaign cash in the bank as of Aug. 4, compared with $4.5 million for Mr. Rubio.

"A lot of [Mr. Crist's] initial contributors have been friends for years, and there's a loyalty factor there," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who has followed Mr. Crist's political career since his days in the state Legislature.

Some of those friendships have extended beyond the Republican Party, Ms. MacManus added.

"A lot of Democratic donors have ponied up for him," she said.

A Crist veto of a bill to make it easier to fire teachers and to link teacher pay to student test scores this year ingratiated him further with the state's unions and with many Democrats.

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill also afforded him frequent use of his gubernatorial bully pulpit, at a time when his independent campaign was still being organized.

"He certainly has got a reputation for being able to read public opinion just about better than anybody else," Ms. MacManus said. "He's definitely a populist in the true sense of the word, and it shows in his campaigning."

The governor's switch to independent status effectively rendered the Republican primary meaningless, meaning that Mr. Rubio - who began his campaign last year with a strongly conservative message - has had to begin courting moderates months earlier than expected in anticipation of the November general election, taking a bit of steam out of his campaign.

Mr. Rubio's surprisingly quick rise to the top of the polls earlier this year also may have left him little room to win over new supporters.

"A lot of Democrats see a lot of difference between him and Rubio, so [Mr. Crist's resurgence in the polls] has been a combination of his own personal popularity and this concern by Democrats about what Rubio would look like" in the Senate, Mr. Crew said.

Mr. Meek's primary win almost certainly would cost Mr. Crist some voters. Whether it would be enough to doom the governor's chances in November, however, has been debated in political circles for months. Mr. Meek's primary challenger, billionaire political newcomer Jeff Greene, was seen by many as giving Mr. Crist a better shot at picking off disaffected Democrats in November.

A Meek win "puts [Democrats] in somewhat of a tenuous position," Mr. Crew said. "They can't overlook a person who has the kind of Democratic credentials that Meek has. On the other hand, I can't think that a really hard-eyed Democratic observer would look at this race and say Meek has much of a chance of winning."

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