Plan A isn't working so well for Gov. Charlie Crist, a former rising Republican star who now trails badly in the Florida Senate primary, but Plans B, C, and D don't look much better.
His populist approach to governing no longer sits well with angry conservatives, who have abandoned him in favor of his primary opponent, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. The Aug. 24 primary is four months away, but a recent poll showed him behind by 23 points.
That leaves the 53-year-old governor with several options, none terribly promising. He could:
- Stay in the primary, where he'll have to find a way to stop Rubio's momentum. That's unlikely.
- Quit the GOP and run as an independent, which he said this week he's considering. But if he does, he'll have no easy source of campaign money. An independent bid probably would mean the end of his career with the Republican Party if he loses. And if Democrat Kendrick Meek wins a three-way race with a split Republican vote, the party never will forgive Crist. Asked Tuesday how he could consider an independent run after saying for weeks he would run as a Republican, Crist responded, "Things change."
- Get out of the Senate race and run for re-election as governor, which would create problems for the party and the Republican front-runner in that race.
- Give up on this year altogether and mount a campaign against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012. But he probably would have to go head-to-head with former chief of staff and current Sen. George LeMieux, whom he appointed to fill Mel Martinez's unexpired term last year when Martinez left to spend more time with his family.
It's a strange position for the man who was considered as a potential running mate for Republican presidential nominee John McCain just two years ago. Some believed he could use a Senate victory to launch an eventual White House run.
Now top Republicans are pressuring Crist to get out of the race if he doesn't think he can win the primary.
The latest is Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-highest ranking House Republican, who said Tuesday that Crist's willingness to consider an independent run shows he will put Republican principles aside just to stay in office.
"I just think that right now we need an entirely different type of leadership — a principled leadership and an individual that will keep his word to voters," Cantor said.
State House Speaker Larry Cretul also endorsed Rubio on Tuesday.
"During the past few months, Governor Crist has confirmed what most Floridians already knew about him, which is that he's willing to say or do just about anything to preserve his political ambitions," Cretul said.
Most egregious to many Republicans was Crist's literal and figurative embrace of President Barack Obama and his $787 billion stimulus package last year. More recently, he vetoed a bill that would tie teacher merit raises to students' test scores, which caused his political mentor, former Sen. Connie Mack, to resign as his campaign chairman. It also cost him the support of other Republican leaders who saw the bill as a priority.
Crist has until April 30 to decide what to do. If he loses the primary, he can't be on the ballot as an independent.
His biggest problem in an independent bid could be money. At the beginning of the month, he had $7 million in his campaign account. He can keep it if he runs as an independent, but it would be hard for him to raise much more if he makes the switch. Crist would also likely lose many loyal Republicans on his campaign staff.
LeMieux said Tuesday that he had spoken with Crist for about 20 minutes, but he would not detail the conversation. He said Crist should stay in — and can win — the primary.
"He is always believed by the establishment to be someone who's going to lose an election, yet he continues to win them," LeMieux said. "So I think anybody in Florida who underestimates Charlie Crist or counts him out early does so at their peril."
But Darryl Paulson, a Republican political scientist from Crist's home county of Pinellas, said he doesn't see a way Crist can win this year's Senate race. He suggested Crist might be better off trying for a U.S. House seat in two years.
Said Paulson: "He has a lot of options, the problem is none of them are very good."
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