Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to abandon the Republican Party and run for Senate as an independent, made official at a St. Petersburg campaign event Thursday, marks a stunning turnaround for a politician who just over a year ago was heralded as one of the GOP's brightest young talents.
But Thursday's rally also represents a general election kick-off for what is now one of the most entertaining and unpredictable races of the midterm election year, a battle between three viable statewide candidates.
"This is unprecedented in Florida, and I would say unprecedented in the country," said Justin Sayfie, the editor of the SayfieReview.com, an online clearinghouse for Florida political news.
Crist will be hunting for votes in the nation's fourth largest state along with Democrat Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio, whose small government message has rallied conservatives to his side over the last year and turned him into a celebrity of sorts among Republicans.
Along with the slumping economy, an albatross for any incumbent, it was Rubio's relentless criticism of Crist for embracing President Obama's stimulus package that cost the governor precious support among conservative base voters, forcing him to quit the GOP primary altogether.
Still, a Quinnipiac University survey of Florida voters released earlier this month indicated that Crist would hold a narrow edge in a three-way contest with Rubio and Meek.
"You can't compare this to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut or Jesse Ventura in Minnesota or anything like that, because now we are going to have a sitting incumbent governor running as an independent candidate against two traditional party candidates," said Sayfie, a Republican who supported Crist when he ran for governor in 2006. "There is no textbook example of how you win a race like that."
After news leaked Wednesday that confirmed what political watchers had expected for weeks, that Crist will leave his party and run for Senate as a "No Party Affiliation" candidate, Rubio's team quickly tried to frame the race in their favor.
Meek, meanwhile, has scheduled a press conference Thursday to react to Crist's announcement.
In a "State of the Race" memo sent to reporters, Rubio advisers Todd Harris and Heath Thompson said that independent voters in Florida this election cycle are hungry for a Republican, anti-establishment message, the sort of ideas Rubio pitches daily on the campaign trail.
"Poll after poll has found that when given a choice between a hypothetical candidate who will go to Washington and support President Obama and his agenda or a candidate who will be a check and balance on that agenda, independent voters overwhelmingly want a check and balance," they wrote. "Marco Rubio's message will resonate very well with independent voters, while both Crist and Meek will be seen largely as Obama rubber stamps."
Rubio's team stressed what may be Crist's biggest problem as an independent candidate: Without the infrastructure and fundraising help that come with party backing, his campaign resources could dry up quickly.
Crist's Republican staffers and consultants are expected to leave his campaign, and the Republican Party of Florida has already warned members of its executive committee against publicly supporting Crist if he leaves the party.
Rubio's advisers argue, too, that Crist's independent run is little more than a transparent political calculation. "The fundamental Crist problem remains the same: When you don't believe in much of anything, it's extremely hard for people to believe in you," they wrote.
But the campaign memo also acknowledged that while Rubio and Meek are familiar faces to the political classes in Florida and Washington, neither has the same profile as Crist does across the state.
As a sitting governor, Crist has the ability to insert himself into the newspaper headlines and local newscasts every day. That free exposure could make up for what he may end up lacking in campaign money.
Crist made several moves in recent weeks -- including vetoing a teacher pay bill popular among conservatives and reversing his support for offshore drilling -- that made clear he plans to target moderate voters instead of Republican regulars.
The governor lost a number of top backers and his campaign chairman, former Sen. Connie Mack, as a result. But not every Republican is jumping ship.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, an ally of the governor's in the Legislature, said he wishes Crist would remain a Republican. But he plans to support him regardless.
"He cares about everyone in the state of Florida, not just Republicans," Fasano said. "I wish we had more politicians like that."
Source : cnn