Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on Sunday said that "primary fear" stirred up from the conservative wing of the Republican Party led him to withdraw from the party's Senate primary last week and run as an independent.
The career Republican said it had become apparent in recent weeks that conservatives had rejected his moderate views and would deny the broader Florida electorate the opportunity to consider his candidacy for the U.S. Senate unless he broke from the party.
"I would emphasize that those are primary Republican voters. It's very different from the November Republican," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"What's happening in our country is, unfortunately, there's a lot of primary fear," the governor added. "I see people in Washington in the House or the Senate, and they are so concerned about being faced or challenged in the primary that they can't speak their true sense, their free will. They feel kind of shackled, if you will, by what the primary voters might do."
Once a darling of the Republican Party, Mr. Crist is fighting for his political life despite being considered a shoo-in a year ago to win his party's primary and the probable winner in November's general election. But his support among Republicans began to erode the moment conservative former House Speaker Marco Rubio entered the primary race.
Mr. Crist in recent months has fallen significantly behind Mr. Rubio in polls for the open Senate seat. Recent surveys suggest Mr. Rubio still would defeat the governor and Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek in a three-way race, though the margin is much tighter.
Mr. Rubio, 38, said Sunday that Mr. Crist's decision to shun his party showed that he is more concerned about political self-preservation than the people of Florida.
"You're never going to be able to hold him accountable to anything, because his opinions are going to change based upon what polling tells him and what his political convenience tells him," Mr. Rubio said on "Fox News Sunday."
With Mr. Rubio all but assured of winning his party's Aug. 24 primary, he said he now is looking forward to the opportunity to "talk to a broader audience of Floridians about our mainstream positions." When "Fox News Sunday" moderator Chris Wallace asked how a self-avowed conservative could consider his positions "mainstream," he responded that "conservative thought is the mainstream position in America."
But Mr. Rubio is embedded so deeply in this party's conservative base that he faces a tough challenge attracting independents and Democrats, a skill that propelled Mr. Crist throughout a successful political career.
Statewide races in Florida - which have straddled the red-blue partisan line for years - are also historically difficult to handicap.
"The support for Rubio that has been most vocal and vociferous has been from the organized party people; the county chairs, that kind of stuff," said Robert Crew, a political science professor at Florida State University. "Nobody, including the Republican Party, knows what the Florida electorate is going to do on this.
"The Florida electorate is not necessarily a Republican electorate; it's not necessarily a right-wing electorate."
Florida state Sen. John Thrasher, also chairman of the Florida Republican Party, ordered the removal of Mr. Crist's official portrait from the party's Tallahassee headquarters almost immediately after the governor announced Thursday he was withdrawing from the party's primary.
In a high-profile show of defiance, Mr. Thrasher ordered the painting sold on eBay. A party spokeswoman said Sunday said the online auction will begin Monday.
Mr. Crist has embraced his newfound independence, and has sidestepped the question of whether he would caucus with Republicans if he won the election.
"I will caucus with the people of Florida," he said on "Meet the Press."
When pressed by moderator David Gregory that such a position would be almost politically impossible, Mr. Crist still declined to pick a side.
Floridians "don't want you to say, 'Look, you have to either go with Democrats or Republicans,' " he said. "You have to go with your gut and with your heart."
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