WASHINGTON — In an apparent nod to Democrats, Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday he would support repealing the policy that bars openly gay people from serving in the military — reversing what he told reporters three days ago.
In a statement from his campaign, Crist said he would "be inclined'' to support a Senate compromise that would lift the ban only after the Pentagon completes a study and the president and Pentagon brass certify that the change won't hurt the military.
"Ultimately, as in all military matters, I defer to the Pentagon and to the generals, and what the Senate is doing today is giving them the ultimate authority to do what is best for our military,'' Crist said. "So, I would be inclined to support the Senate's action on this.''
Crist told reporters Monday that "I think the current policy has worked pretty well for America. I really do. So I don't know why there's any need for change at this time.''
Thursday, his rivals in the Senate race quickly accused the newly independent Senate candidate of flip-flopping, with Republican Marco Rubio noting Crist's stance "comes stunningly just three days after telling Florida reporters he saw no need to change the policy.'' A spokesman for Rubio said the former state House speaker "supports the current policy and doesn't see any reason for it to change.''
With polls showing Crist poaching Democratic voters, Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek had been using his support for repealing "don't ask, don't tell'' to cast himself as the "lone progressive'' in the race, accusing Crist and Rubio of siding "with the far right instead of our men and women in uniform.''
In a conference call Thursday, Meek blasted Crist for what he said was a pattern of changing his positions to suit his political needs.
"This is not about being independent, this is about being for whatever way the wind blows for his own personal gain,'' Meek said. "As far as I can tell, the only thing that Charlie Crist stands for from one day to the next is his own self-preservation.''
Meek noted that Crist backtracked on his support for oil drilling after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and vetoed an education bill after an uproar from teachers.
In contrast, Meek said he has co-sponsored efforts to lift the 17-year-old law that has long been opposed by gay activists, "in support of individuals who are putting their lives in the line of fire.''
The dustup came as the Senate Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to end the ban. Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted in favor of repeal; Republican Sen. George LeMieux voted against.
Hours after the Senate vote, the House followed suit to repeal the 1993 law and allow gays to serve openly in the military by a 234-194 vote. In both cases the measure was offered as an amendment to a defense spending bill.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that of the 13,500 members of the military who have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," more than 1,000 filled critical occupations, such as engineers and interpreters. The full Senate probably will take up the bill next month.
Crist's campaign said the Senate compromise "allows the military to be the final decisionmaker on this issue, not Congress.''
Meek, who has struggled to gain attention in the high-profile jousting between Crist and Rubio, dismissed questions about whether he's worried that Crist is trying to cut into his base.
By the August primary, Meek said, "people will know there is a Democrat in the race and that Democrat is me. The way I see the governor's candidacy is that Marco Rubio is Republican right and (Crist) is Republican light.
Meek's Democratic primary rival, Jeff Greene, who has never held public office, also opposes the policy.
"I think 'don't ask, don't tell' is something every American should be ashamed of,'' Greene told the Century Village Democratic Club in West Palm Beach earlier this week. "It has to be repealed, no question about it.''
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.