PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Former President Bill Clinton on Friday denied reports — confirmed by his spokesman a day earlier — that he asked Democrat Kendrick Meek to drop out of the three-way Florida Senate race to clear the way for independent Gov. Charlie Crist.
Meek says he's not dropping out, and even if he did it would likely be too late to make a difference. Nearly two million people have already voted and his name would still be on the ballot Tuesday.
Several prominent black Democrats said they believe the fuss is backfiring on Crist and energizing black voters to go to the polls to support Meek, who is black.
Both men trail tea party-backed Republican Marco Rubio, though Meek was in last place according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday that showed Rubio with 42 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Crist and 15 percent for Meek. To win, Crist needs at least some of the Democrats who plan to vote for Meek.
"When one of ours has been given the short end of the stick, we tend to rise up, sort of like with Obama," said state Rep. Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, referring to her recollection of Obama's win in the South Carolina primary after Clinton said voters should pick his wife. "My God, the flood gates had opened. It's going to happen again with Kendrick Meek."
In Jacksonville, Sen. Tony Hill, who once staged a sit-in with Meek in then-Gov. Jeb Bush's office complex to protest a plan to do away with affirmative action policies, was outside an early voting site and said he had never seen it so crowded.
"I've gotten calls from people saying 'What's happening? Is he in the race?' and I say 'He's in it to win it,'" Hill said.
Meek is accusing Crist of starting rumors that Clinton, his longtime friend, tried to get him to drop out.
"Charlie Crist is trying to win by any means necessary," Meek said. "Don't let that smile fool you."
Meek said Friday that during Clinton's swing through Florida to campaign for him and other candidates last week, the former president asked him about reports that he was considering leaving the race.
"I never said I was considering getting out. I said, 'Mr. President, that is not true,'" Meek said before an event in Orlando. "That was that. I never once told him, 'Hey, I'm thinking of getting out.'"
Clinton said in a statement Friday that he had talked to Meek about the race and its challenges.
"I didn't ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would," Clinton said. "I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless."
A day earlier, Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna had confirmed a Politico report that Clinton tried to talk Meek into quitting.
Crist, campaigning in Panama City, acknowledged he spoke to Clinton aides about the race, but said he didn't initiate any discussions about Meek dropping out.
"I'm not going to get into a 'he said, she said' kind of thing. That's silly. What matters is the people of Florida have to make a decision," Crist said.
This isn't the first time Crist opponents have been the subject of dropout rumors. In 2006, rumors were floated that Tom Gallagher was going to drop out of the gubernatorial primary for the good of the Republican Party. He didn't. Last year, a top GOP official made phone calls saying Rubio was going to drop out of the Senate primary and run for attorney general. Rubio didn't, and Crist eventually left the party to run as an independent when he fell behind Rubio in the polls.
State Rep. Luis Garcia, a former Florida Democratic Party vice chairman, said if Meek was going to drop out, he should have done it weeks ago.
"It's kind of late in the game," said Garcia, who endorsed Crist. "The early voting is taking place, the absentee ballots are in, so I don't know how effective it would be right now."
While not directly mentioning Crist, Rubio, a former House speaker, used the story to take a shot at him.
"If you ever needed a reminder of what's wrong with American politics today, this story is a great reminder of backdoor deals. That's what's got us some of this bad public policy that's putting America on the wrong track. That's what got us Obamacare," Rubio said after visiting an Original Pancake House in Palm Beach Gardens.
Brent Kallestad in Panama City, Mike Schneider in Orlando and Tony Winton in Miami contributed to this report.
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