Phil Coale/AP
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist talks with the media in Tallahassee on March 24. Governor Crist trails opponent Marco Rubio in the polls ahead of the Republican primary for Florida's open US Senate seat.

The Charlie Crist conundrum: lots of choices, none of them good

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was a rising star in the Republican Party. Now, he appears to have backed himself into a political corner in his bid to be a US senator.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, once a rising Republican star with credible ambitions of national office, sits on the brink of political oblivion.

His centrist profile – crystallized by his now-infamous embrace of President Obama (and his economic stimulus plan) last November – made him ripe for a challenge from the right in his bid for Florida’s open US Senate seat. Former state House speaker Marco Rubio – young, charismatic, and conservative – has executed his challenge nearly flawlessly, taking advantage of "tea party" movement energy and the backlash against Mr. Obama’s policies.

In just a few months, Governor Crist has gone from a towering lead over Mr. Rubio in the primary to being 20 points down.

Crist faces four choices:

  • He can remain in the GOP primary and face almost certain defeat on Aug. 24. The National Republican Senate Committee, gatekeeper of party cash, on Monday stated that there’s “zero chance” Crist stays in the race and urged him to drop out. Virtually no one sees Crist staying the GOP primary.
  • He has until April 30 to drop out of the Republican primary and announce as an independent candidate for Senate. If he does so, analysts say, his fundraising would dry up, making it difficult to mount a credible campaign in a state with multiple television markets.
  • He can drop out of the GOP primary and take a break from politics, perhaps looking ahead to a 2012 run for the Senate, when Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is up for reelection.
  • He can shift gears and run for reelection as governor. The filing deadline for statewide office is June 18. But Republicans already have a front-runner for the nomination – State Attorney General and former Rep. Bill McCollum – and a competitive primary would make party leaders unhappy. A last-minute turn to reelection by Crist would also reinforce his image as a flip-flopper.

Still, Crist is not unpopular as governor. A recent Quinnipiac University Poll shows Crist with 49 percent job approval and 39 percent disapproval. The danger is that he looks at that – and another part of the same poll – and sees hope in his goal of becoming a senator. The poll tested a three-way race for the Senate – Rubio, Crist (as an independent), and Democrat Kendrick Meek – and found Crist winning by 2 points.

But Florida political analysts predict that Crist would fall flat as an independent in the race – not only because raising money would be extremely difficult, but also because he would look so nakedly ambitious in a cycle where “career politician” is not the best point on one’s résumé.

“His path to victory is [winning] a sizable portion of crossover votes from both parties, and winning at least a majority of independents,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “That’s a tough calculation.”

At the moment, Crist may be gaining some Democratic support for his veto of an education bill opposed by the teachers’ union, but “Kendrick Meek is not going to sit by and let the teachers vote for Charlie Crist,” says Ms. MacManus.

Brad Coker, president of the Mason-Dixon polling firm, sees an independent run by Crist for Senate falling flat almost immediately. “The minute he announces, that’s the zenith of his campaign,” says Mr. Coker, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla.

But if the smart move is to wait for a more hospitable climate, it’s not clear that Crist has the patience for that. Part of what has hurt him is his ambition. Almost as soon as he was elected governor, he started floating vice presidential trial balloons.

“Some people are urging him to stand aside and wait for a better time,” says MacManus. “But I don’t know that it’s in his nature. The one thing I will say about him is, he’s always been a risk-taker when it comes to running for office. When people say, ‘Not now, he shouldn’t do it,’ that’s just the time he will.”

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