- Associated Press - Friday, October 29, 2010

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton said Friday that he did not ask Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek to drop out of the Florida Senate race, where he trails badly, and throw his support behind independent Gov. Charlie Crist.

Mr. Meek went on national morning TV news shows to swat down reports that he told Mr. Clinton, who was campaigning for him, that he would drop out to improve Crist’s chances of defeating tea party-backed Republican Marco Rubio.

Mr. Clinton said in a statement Friday that he did talk to Mr. Meek, his longtime friend, about the challenges of the race after a rally in Orlando last week.

“I didn’t ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would,” Mr. Clinton said. “I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless.”

Mr. Meek said it was Mr. Crist who had suggested dropping out backstage at a South Florida event this month. He said Mr. Crist had also called Mr. Clinton’s office “trying to persuade them to get me out of this race.”

“Gov. Crist talked to me about getting out of the race. I recommended to the governor that he should consider getting out of the race,” Mr. Meek said on CNN’s “American Morning.”

Mr. Crist left the GOP to run as an independent after polls showed Rubio would beat him in the Republican primary.

Mr. Crist told reporters in Panama City on Friday that he discussed the possibility of Mr. Meek dropping out with the congressman when they crossed paths earlier this week at a campaign event in South Florida.

He deflected questions about who initiated the conversation.

“It really doesn’t matter,” Mr. Crist said. “The people have a choice. They’ll determine who they’ll send to Washington, D.C.”

Polls indicate Mr. Meek is badly trailing Mr. Crist and Mr. Rubio and has little chance of winning on Tuesday. The idea of Mr. Meek quitting so voters in his camp would kick their support to the more moderate Mr. Crist, instead of the conservative Mr. Rubio, has been swirling around the campaigns for some time.

Mr. Meek on Thursday called “inaccurate at best” a report by Politico that was confirmed by a Clinton spokesman that the former president last week asked him to withdraw.

Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine, appearing on CBS’s “The Early Show,” said he has heard nothing about any discussion between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Meek about Mr. Meek withdrawing from the race. He said the party has invested heavily in the Florida race and is putting its muscle behind Mr. Meek.

Mr. Rubio tried to use the confusion to his advantage.

“If you ever needed a reminder of what’s wrong with American politics today, this story is a great reminder of backdoor deals,” he said Friday after visiting an Original Pancake House in Palm Beach Gardens.

Many Florida voters have already cast early and absentee ballots, so even if Mr. Meek dropped out it might have only a marginal effect. His name also would remain on the Election Day ballot.

Brendan Farrington in Palm Beach Gardens and Liz Sidoti in Washington contributed to this report.

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