Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has decided he will run as an independent in the race for U.S. Senate, Fox News reported Wednesday afternoon.
The official announcement is scheduled for 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday in St. Petersburg.
Once a front-runner, Crist recently began trailing by double digits in the polls to his conservative GOP opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
Crist has openly considered running without party affiliation. Top Republicans from former Vice President Dick Cheney to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have encouraged him to stay in the primary or drop out rather than risking a split vote that could benefit likely Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Crist did not return calls for comment Wednesday, but told reporters at the Capitol that he was very close to making a decision.
Asked how he would explain running without a party when he had said he was going to run as a Republican, he replied: "I don't know, number one, that I'm not, and number two, if I were to, I would say what I said the other day: Things change."
Another possible sign of Crist's intentions: His campaign website has been stripped of almost any mention of his Republican affiliation with one prominent exception, an endorsement from Sandy Yancey, a former GOP committeewoman, who says, "The Republican Party is being hijacked by ultra conservatives that have let compassion and logic fly out the window." No mention of the GOP primary is apparent except for outdated press releases.
The most recent poll by Quinnipiac University had Rubio leading Crist by 23 points in the primary, but it suggested Crist could win a three-way race with him and Meek.
Meek could be the biggest beneficiary if Crist goes independent. Polls show him losing badly in a head-to-head race with either Rubio or Crist, but competitive in a three-way race if he can keep the Democratic base while Crist peels off some Republican votes from Rubio and picks up GOP-leaning independents.
If Crist runs as an independent, he will have a harder time raising money and will lose most of his campaign staff, who will likely be blacklisted from future Republican campaigns if they stick with him.
The state Republican Party has already warned county and state party executive committee members that they will be removed from their positions if they support an independent Crist campaign in any way. Members who have already said they will back Crist must rescind their support and ask to have their contributions refunded, although Crist does not have to give the money back.
The rift between the GOP and Crist seemed inconceivable less than 18 months ago, when he was a rising star in the party. He had a huge lead over Rubio in the polls when they entered race for the seat then-Sen. Mel Martinez left early.
Crist quickly earned endorsements from the Republican establishment in Washington, while Rubio had trouble raising money.
But then Crist made a political calculation that backfired, choosing to embrace President Barack Obama — literally — and his $787 billion federal stimulus plan at a Fort Myers rally in February 2009. At the time, Obama's poll numbers were high, and Crist hoped the stimulus money for state government could prevent tough budget decisions for him and the Legislature.
Rubio used the image of "the hug" to his advantage. He hit rallies and events around the state criticizing the Obama agenda while Crist said little about the Senate race for months, focusing instead on raising money. Rubio's conservative message about limited spending and relying on the free market rather than government to create jobs eventually caught on, first with tea party activists and then with mainstream Republicans.
Crist repeatedly attacked Rubio for using a GOP credit card for personal expenses and questioned budget items he sought as a lawmaker, trying to depict him as anything but the fiscal conservative he says he is. But Crist could not stop Rubio's momentum.
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