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Florida’s Crist to Stress Outsider Image in Run for U.S. Senate

Charlie Crist, governor of Florida
Charles "Charlie" Crist, governor of Florida, waits for U.S. President Barack Obama to speak in the state dining room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 22, 2010. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Florida Governor Charlie Crist said he’ll run for the U.S. Senate this November as an independent, using his unaffiliated status to run a campaign depicting him as a political outsider.

He stressed that message in announcing his decision yesterday to give up his bid to win the Republican nomination for the seat.

“My decision to run for the United States Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me,” Crist, 53, told voters at a rally in his hometown of St. Petersburg. “Our political system is broken.”

His decision sets up a three-way contest in a swing state likely to be closely watched for what it shows about the viability of third-party candidates and the appeal of the conservative tilt in the Republican Party.

“This is a year when ideological purity on both sides of the aisle is in vogue, so he doesn’t fit tightly into that model,” Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said of Crist. “The big question is whether the public sees running as an independent as refreshing or opportunistic.”

Crist won the governorship in 2006 as a Republican, and party leaders said they believe voters will view his defection as little more than a cynical political calculation.

‘Political Character’

“He was happy to run as a Republican when he had a 30-point lead” in the early stages of the primary campaign in Florida, said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who formerly headed the party political committee for U.S. House candidates. “Political character would be to stay in there and fight for the party that’s elected him.”

Crist saw his fortunes in the primary race fade as increasing numbers of Florida Republicans and national party leaders threw their support to Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state’s House who gained momentum by appealing to the party’s fiscally conservative base.

Prominent Republicans endorsing Rubio in recent weeks have included former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and U.S. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

“He’s become a kind of superstar in this particular election,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican. “He’s a really, really good candidate.”

In a sign that Rubio, 38, may begin reaching out to more moderate Florida voters, earlier this week he broke with national Republican leaders to criticize Arizona’s new law that would require local police to determine the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country without proper documentation.

Split From Party

Republican support for Crist in Florida eroded as he repeatedly cut against the party’s ideological grain. Most recently, he split with state Republican officials when he vetoed a bill that would have overhauled teacher contracts. The legislation was backed by former Republican Governor Jeb Bush and other top party officials; it was opposed by the state’s teacher unions.

Crist indicated yesterday he felt pushed out of the primary race by his party’s conservative wing. “It’s not one club’s decision or another, or even a club within that club,” he said at his rally.

He also said Americans have “had enough of political fighting.” Voters “want progress and not gridlock,” he said.

Poll Data

Crist trailed Rubio by 23 percentage points in the Aug. 24 primary race for the Republican Senate nod, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted April 8-13 found.

The survey showed Crist running better as an independent in the general election. In that scenario, Crist was backed by 32 percent of Florida voters, compared with 30 percent for Rubio and 24 percent for the Democratic primary frontrunner, Representative Kendrick Meek.

Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, said yesterday a third-party candidate faces some key disadvantages when competing in a largely two-party political system. Crist will be running against candidates with the far stronger fieldwork operations and fundraising support, he said.

“The two parties remain quite strong,” Lieberman said, adding that their strength has grown as they’ve become “more ideological.”

Lieberman, formerly a Democrat, won re-election as an independent in 2006 in a race against Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. He said he had no plans to endorse Crist.

Money Needs

Raising the money needed for an effective advertising campaign in a large state will be difficult for Crist without help from a national political party, said Al Cardenas, a former Republican chairman in Florida.

“The parties will have the resources to give to their candidates,” Cardenas said. “The governor’s resources are going to dry up and he’ll have to rely primarily on interest groups, but I don’t think he’ll be competitive in the fundraising aspect of the campaign.”

Crist acknowledged the challenges of running as an independent in his announcement yesterday.

“I know this is uncharted territory,” he said. “I need you. I need you, the people, more than ever.”

Meek, 43, plans to cast Crist as a second Republican candidate.

‘Night Job’

“Regardless what the governor said, he is still the Republican governor of Florida and I guess his night job will be running as an independent,” Meek said yesterday. “I think it’s going to confuse a number of voters in the state.”

Top Republican lawmakers and fundraisers said they plan an aggressive campaign against Crist.

“Suffice to say, we’ll leave no stone unturned trying to elect the Republican nominee, Marco Rubio,” Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said yesterday before Crist’s announcement. Cornyn also said his committee, which had endorsed Crist, will ask him to return $20,000 in donations it funneled his way.

Crist said he has a fundraiser tentatively planned for this weekend in Miami. “I hope we do well at it,” he told reporters.

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