Charlie Crist

Sources: Gov. Charlie Crist to ditch GOP, run as independent

By Jim Stratton and Aaron Deslatte, Sun Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE — Barring an eleventh-hour change of heart, Gov. Charlie Crist will turn Florida’s U.S. Senate race on its head today by formally announcing he will run as an independent and leave the party that made him one of the most recognizable politicians in the state.

Crist plans to launch his independent bid in his hometown of St. Petersburg, according to two sources close to the governor, portraying himself as a candidate more interested in serving “the people” than party bosses.

He will begin campaigning almost immediately, having already scheduled a weekend fundraiser in South Florida, the sources said.

His long-rumored break from the Republican Party will elevate Florida’s Senate race into the hottest political ticket in the country: a three-way scrum pitting Crist against Marco Rubio, the charismatic favorite of movement conservatives and Tea Party activists, and likely Democratic nominee U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.

“It’ll be the number-one headline race in the country,” saidUniversity of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “It’s going to capture the national imagination, because there’s nothing out there comparable.”

Crist has been toying with the idea of running as an independent for weeks, but he has been coy about his plans when pressed by reporters.

Even as late as Wednesday afternoon, key staffers didn’t know what he would say today. But the sources said Crist had been telling financial backers of his plans and that, unless there’s a last-minute shift, he would make an independent run.

Crist is trailing Rubio badly in primary polls, and many analysts think his only shot at winning is running outside of the GOP. The governor has fueled that speculation by acting like a candidate intent on burning political bridges.

He vetoed legislation important to GOP lawmakers — most notably a teacher-merit-pay bill — and said he might call a special session of the Legislature to focus on ethics. That comes amid a Republican Party of Florida credit-card scandal that has piqued the interest of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service.

Crist’s campaign issued a news release Wednesday saying Crist would hold a “candidate qualifying event” today at 5 p.m. at Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg. The governor, however, continued to dodge questions about whether Wednesday was his last day as a GOP candidate.

He did say, however, he hoped old political allies such as former campaign manager George LeMieux — whom he appointed to the U.S. Senate — would continue to support him. LeMieux had no comment.

“I’d like everybody’s support regardless of what happens,” Crist said. “It’s really about the people and what happens to them.”

Voters should expect to hear that a lot.

Crist confidants say the governor — unable to “out-conservative” Rubio — will reach out to voters frustrated by a two-party system poisoned by partisan bickering. Crist supporter and Orlando lawyerJohn Morgan said a run outside party lines plays to Crist’s strengths.

He has long cast himself as a politician who puts “people above politics,” and in recent weeks has repeatedly talked about “listening to the people” while deciding whether to break from the party.

Critics dismiss that as pandering to voters — many observers say Crist’s only principle is political expediency — but Morgan insists it reflects a sincere desire to help people.

“He’s a genuinely decent man,” said Morgan, an influential fundraiser who typically backs Democrats. “I think this is his best chance.”

Sabato agreed, saying a dramatic break with the party will let Crist present himself as an outsider — even though he has spent most of his adult life becoming an insider.

“It’s a dramatic turn into the unknown,” Sabato said. “A lot of voters will think, ‘Wow, what a daring thing to do.’ That’s not saying he’s going to win, but it opens the door.”

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