Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to announce his Senate candidacy Tuesday, becomes the front-runner for the open seat being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez, who will not seek a second term in 2010.
The prospect of the popular governor entering the race was a rare piece of good news for the GOP at a time when election trackers are forecasting that Republicans could lose between two and five Senate seats next year.
Florida has become a more competitive state in recent presidential and state elections, but with two-thirds of Florida voters approving of the job Mr. Crist is doing, top campaign analysts Monday gave him the edge in the race if he is the party’s nominee.
“It’s too early to make a definitive statement about these races, but I would give Crist a slight advantage. The race would lean toward the Republicans,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, senior analyst at the Cook Political Report, which closely tracks House, Senate and gubernatorial races.
“He’s a very popular governor, but Democrats would argue that his numbers are good but they are soft and that he’s going to have a lot of problems dealing with issues like property insurance costs, the economy and real estate values, which have taken a beating here,” Ms. Duffy said.
“The Democrats aren’t conceding this race, but they are going to have to prove they have a candidate who can go toe to toe with Crist,” she said.
Mr. Crist will first have to survive a likely party primary. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami, a Republican who is appealing to his party’s large conservative base, announced his candidacy last week, focusing on cutting taxes and government spending.
Many conservatives are unhappy with Mr. Crist for supporting President Obama’s nearly $800 billion spending stimulus bill, but a Quinnipiac University poll last month still showed the governor drawing 54 percent support in a party primary poll, and Mr. Rubio only 8 percent.
Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush considered entering the Senate race, but announced last month that he would not be a candidate.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a four-term House member, state Sen. Dan Gelber and North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns have jumped into the race, with several others having expressed an interest in running. Former President Bill Clinton has done several fundraisers for Mr. Meek.
“This open seat certainly creates a Democratic opportunity, but a Crist candidacy seriously diminishes Democratic chances of snatching the Senate seat away from the GOP,” said the Rothenberg Political Report.
For Mr. Crist, however, the race would mean that he would have to leave the governorship of the nation’s fourth-largest state at the end of his first term and, if he wins, become the state’s junior senator in a chamber ruled by the Democrats.