Gov. Charlie Crist said Monday he is considering an independent Florida Senate bid despite growing pressure from top Republicans to drop out of the race if he thinks he can't win a GOP primary.
Crist told The Associated Press in a phone interview that he wants to listen to Florida residents as he makes up his mind whether to stay in a Republican primary against Marco Rubio or run without party affiliation.
"I want to be very, very thoughtful and deliberate," Crist said. "I want to listen to the people and do what I think is in the best interest of Florida."
His comments came after the executive director of a national group that helps Republicans get elected to the Senate e-mailed consultants and said he thought there was "zero chance" Crist would stay in the GOP primary.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigning with Rubio in Tampa on Monday, said Crist should either stay in the primary or drop out of the race altogether.
A recent poll showed Crist is trailing Rubio badly in the primary but could win a three-way race with him and likely Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
"If Governor Crist believes he cannot win a primary then the proper course of action is he drop out of the race and wait for another day," Rob Jesmer of the National Republican Senatorial Committee wrote in his e-mail.
It's the latest sign of how far Crist's campaign has fallen in less than a year. Last May, NRSC Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, endorsed Crist immediately after he entered the race against Rubio, a former state House speaker.
Jesmer said Cornyn has tried calling Crist to convey the message that he should drop out if he thinks he can't win the primary, but Crist didn't return the call. Jesmer also told the consultants that if Crist runs as an independent candidate, "we will support Marco Rubio in any way possible."
"If any of you have influence with Governor Crist, we hope you will call his campaign and encourage him to do the right thing," Jesmer wrote.
Crist said he planned to return Cornyn's call, but that it's Floridians who will influence him.
"I care what my fellow Floridians think and what their thoughts are much more than anybody from Washington," Crist said.
Crist must decide by April 30 if he will remain in the Republican primary or take his chances in the general election without a party. He cannot switch after the primary.
A year ago, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Crist ahead of Rubio by 46 percentage points. Last week the same poll showed Rubio ahead by 23 percentage points. Meek is the leading Democrat in the race.
In Tampa, meanwhile, Romney said he expects Crist to "do the right thing." Romney is often mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. Backing Rubio, a favorite of conservatives, could help endear him to Republican voters uncomfortable with his moderate stands on abortion and gay rights when he ran for office in Massachusetts.
In an interview after the event, Rubio declined to pressure Crist to drop out, saying the reason he is running will not change no matter who is in the race.
"I think we need to send someone to Washington who will stand up to the Obama agenda and offer an alternative, and both Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist, I think, to one extent or another, would support the Obama agenda," Rubio said. He said he hadn't thought about how his campaign strategy would change with Crist running as an independent.
Crist endorsed Sen. John McCain over Romney just days ahead of Florida's 2008 GOP presidential primary, and some political observers believe that was enough to give McCain the win, which he used to build momentum and capture the nomination.
Two other 2008 presidential candidates — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — have endorsed Rubio too. Giuliani was also counting on a Florida victory during the 2008 campaign and now says Crist backed out of a promised endorsement.
Crist, Rubio and Meek are running to fill the seat held by George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff. Crist appointed him after Mel Martinez resigned before completing his first term, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Associated Press Writer Mitch Stacy in Tampa contributed to this report.
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