Senate Watch – FL: What is going on with Charlie Crist? (PM UPDATE: ‘VIRTUAL CERTAINTY’?)

The St. Petersburg Times blog “The Buzz” is, well, buzzing about a claim coming from Marco Rubio’s camp that the Crist campaign has pulled all of its TV ads in the Orlando and Tampa Bay markets:

The Marco Rubio campaign says Charlie Crist has halted all its TV advertising in the Orlando and Tampa Bay markets where the anti-Rubio spots were airing. That’s presumably a sign that Crist has decided to marshal his resources for later or perhaps drop out altogether.

Meanwhile George LeMieux just appeared on The Daily Rundown on MSNBC and dismissed the prospect of Crist dropping out of the GOP primary and running as a no party affiliation candidate.

“I have every reason to believe that Charlie Crist is running as a Republican and this independent thing will not happen,” LeMieux said.

LeMieux spoke to Crist this weekend. He said, bizarrely, that the independent question “didn’t even come up.”

Riiight. We’re supposed to believe that after a recent poll indicated that Crist running as an independent could very well help him win in the fall that the topic didn’t come up?

A new Quinnipiac poll shows why it might be good for Gov. Charlie Crist to file as an independent for the U.S. Senate race in Florida.

The poll shows his Republican rival Marco Rubio with a huge 56%-33% lead in the GOP primary. But a three-way matchup – Crist running as an independent, Rubio running as the Republican candidate, and Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami in the Democratic column—voters give Crist a narrow win. The poll shows an independent Crist would get 32% of the vote, Rubio 30% and Meek trails at 24%. To be sure, the win is within the poll’s 2.8 percentage point margin of error.

More details on that scenario: Crist gets 30% of Republican voters, 27% of Democrats and 38% of independents. Rubio collects 64% of Republican votes, 5% of Democrats and 29% of independents while Meek gets 55% of Democrats and 15% of independents.

Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a Capital Journal columnist, put it this way: “If Crist remains in the GOP primary, and absent the type of game-changing scandal of which there is no sign, the governor faces the political equivalent of climbing a 90-degree mountain. But in a three-way, he has a possible path to the U.S. Senate.”

Crist’s campaign has dismissed speculation that the governor would make an independent bid for the Senate seat as “baseless rumors.” But Crist advisers have been telling him to consider just such a move. For more on that, click here and here.

Crist has indicated that he would look at a possible indepedent bid “later on.”

Rich Lowry has a great piece up on the reasons he believes Crist should abandon the idea of running for Senate as an independent. Snippets:

1) Reinforcing the negative. The biggest rap against Crist is that he’s a soulless politician: He has no moorings and will bend in whatever direction suits his purposes. Crist infamously endorsed the stimulus at a February 2009 event with President Obama — and then, almost as infamously, tried to deny it in November when it was weighing him down in the GOP race. Switching parties because he fears losing a primary, a primary he said he was committed to seeing through to the end, would only make Crist’s chief vulnerability worse. No one — conservative, liberal, or in between — likes an opportunist, and Crist would have established himself as one beyond any argument. He’d be Arlen Specter, except without a party.

2) A Republican meltdown. Crist’s standing in the Republican party would collapse. Everyone has long known that Jeb Bush, Crist’s predecessor as governor, basically backs Rubio. While Bush’s feelings about Crist became a little more public after the Crist’s veto of the big education-reform bill on Thursday, Bush has still held off issuing a public endorsement. If Crist quit the party, though, Bush would no longer hold back. Neither would the rest of the Republican establishment. Crist turns in a relatively strong showing as an independent in the Quinnipiac poll right now because he still gets 30 percent of Republicans. That number would begin to diminish immediately once he broke with the GOP.

Make sure to read the whole thing.

Florida’s primary is on August 24th. Federal qualifying in Florida is April 26-30. That’s when Crist will have to file as either a Republican or as an independent.

Stay tuned.

PM Update – 12:10 PM: Hotline on Call reports that top GOPers are of the mindset that Crist will run as an independent:

Top GOP officials in DC now believe it is a virtual certainty that FL Gov. Charlie Crist (R) will bolt the GOP and run instead as an independent, sources tell Hotline OnCall.

Over the weekend, Crist pulled TV advertisements that had been running in key markets, slamming ex-FL House Speaker Marco Rubio (R). Those ads, on which Crist spent close to $1.5M so far, were aimed at moving poll numbers that showed Crist losing badly.

In taking the ads down, top GOP officials have surmised both that Crist has made his decision to run as an independent, and that the attacks weren’t having an impact on the race.

Privately, GOP officials have even tried to broach the idea that Crist drop out of the race. NRSC chair John Cornyn called Crist on Friday, intending to make it clear that Crist should drop out if he doesn’t believe he can win a party primary. Crist did not answer the phone, a source close to Cornyn said, and as of today Cornyn’s call hasn’t been returned.

Party leaders spent the weekend sending more overt warnings. Cornyn told Politico last week Crist would be ending his GOP career by running as an independent, while Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN Crist would lose party backing if he leaves.

Instead of from party leaders, insiders believe Crist is getting advice from Sen. George LeMieux (R), the man Crist hopes to replace. LeMieux ran Crist’s ’06 GOV race and has served as his top aide in the past.

The article goes on to suggest that many of Crist’s top campaign staffers would leave his campaign if he went the independent route, talks about how some GOP donors might demand their $$ back, and how “organizational options would be seriously limited.”

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