Florida's October surprise: Clinton urged Meek to exit Senate race

Democrat Kendrick Meek says he'll stay in the three-way Florida Senate race, but the Clinton-Meek saga is a PR nightmare for the party.

Steve Nesius/AP/File
In this Oct. 19 file photo, Florida Democratic senate candidate Kendrick Meek (r.) smiles as he listens to former President Bill Clinton address supporters during a campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Surprise! Former President Clinton tried to get Kendrick Meek, the Democratic Senate nominee in Florida, to drop out of his three-way race last week.

The idea was to clear the way to allow the Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist to go head-to-head against Republican Marco Rubio, who leads in polls. Presumably, if the gambit proved successful, a Senator Crist would caucus with the Democrats, giving them extra insurance against losing control of the Senate.

A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday showed Congressman Meek with only 15 percent, Governor Crist at 35 percent, and former state House Speaker Rubio at 42 percent. Crist would need only half of the Meek vote to top Rubio.

Since the story broke Thursday night, Meek has acknowledged the conversation with the former president, though he says it’s not true that he agreed to drop out (twice) and then changed his mind, as Politico reported. Crist has also said the story is true, and that he had been informed by “people very close to President Clinton,” as Crist put it on MSNBC.

Mr. Clinton has responded to the story with his trademark artful wording.

"[Meek] is trying to decide what to do, and I talked to him and I told him that – we went through everything, we talked about it a couple times – I said in the end you know you have to do what you thought was right,'' Clinton told CNN Thursday night. "I think in terms of what I said to him and what he said to me, since he's my friend and he's the candidate and he wanted us to talk as we always have, I have to let him say what whatever he wants to say about our conversation. It would be wrong for me to discuss it.''

The Democrats are especially concerned about the prospect of a Rubio victory because of his potential on the national political stage: young (39), charismatic, Cuban-American. Some Republicans call him their Barack Obama. Rubio is backed by the tea party, but he did not spring from that movement, like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky. His campaign began to take off early in primary season – leading Crist to quit the GOP and run in the general as an independent – and the tea party hopped on board.

Though conservative, Rubio has not always followed the conservative hard line on immigration matters, leaving some Florida tea partyers less-than-thrilled with his candidacy. But for a Republican Party working hard to attract Latino votes, Rubio is gold.

Just four days before the midterm elections, the Meek-Clinton story is a PR nightmare. Meek is the Democrats’ only competitive African-American Senate candidate, and the party can ill afford to discourage black voters – both in Florida and nationally. In Florida’s tight governor's race, Democrat Alex Sink needs the Democratic base to turn out in force, including African-Americans, to defeat Republican Rick Scott.

In addition, many Floridians have already voted, presumably some for Meek. By last week, it may have been too late for a Meek departure to swing the race to Crist.

The Clinton-Meek saga is the latest in a series of failed, and sometimes embarrassing, attempts by top Democrats to engineer Senate races this fall. The Obama White House recruited former President Clinton to try to get Rep. Joe Sestak (D) not to run against Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in the Pennsylvania Senate primary, reportedly sweetening the deal with a job offer to Congressman Sestak. It didn’t work; Sestak ended up beating Senator Specter.

The White House also tried to keep former speaker of the Colorado House Andrew Romanoff from running against appointed Sen. Michael Bennet in that state’s Democratic primary. Mr. Romanoff was reportedly offered a job in the administration not to run. He ran anyway and lost. Obama himself tried to recruit popular Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run for his old Senate seat, but she declined. Now Mr. Obama’s seat is in danger of going Republican.

White House officials have been quoted as saying the White House did not initiate the effort to get Meek to drop out, but they have acknowledged they were aware of what was happening.

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