TAMPA — It's approaching do-or-die time for Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek.
To have any shot at prevailing in Florida's unprecedented three-way U.S. Senate race, Crist needs to marginalize Democratic nominee Meek, who in turn needs to knock down lingering perceptions that he can't win.
"The next 10 days are critical for Kendrick Meek because he really has to show Democrats in this state and in Washington in particular that he has a shot, that he's a viable candidate who can win,'' said Republican consultant John Wehrung. "There's a blinking red light in the corner of Kendrick Meek's eye warning him that Charlie Crist is stealing all his Democrats and he needs to find a way to get them back, like now."
It may be Florida's first statewide race featuring three serious contenders, but at this stage Republican nominee Marco Rubio, 39, can largely float above the fray while independent Crist, 54, and Democrat Meek, 44, vie to be the main alternative to Rubio. Crist is banking on winning strong support from Democratic voters, largely with a simple message: "I can win."
That implies, of course, that Meek can't.
Never mind that the Miami congressman defied skeptics by raising millions of dollars in the primary and then overwhelmingly beat billionaire rival Jeff Greene. He still faces skepticism fueled in part by grim polling.
The average of recent polls compiled by Pollster.com shows Rubio with 37 percent support, Crist with 34 percent and Meek a distant third with 17 percent.
"This is a race between two candidates — Charlie Crist, an independent leader who will go to Washington to fight for the people of Florida, and Marco Rubio, a partisan politician who will go to Washington to fight for party bosses and special interests that got America into this mess in the first place," said Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner.
Labor Day traditionally kick-starts the campaign season, and on Tuesday both Crist and Meek launched their first TV ads of the general election.
Crist's spot featured the candidate promising to "take the best ideas of Democrats and Republicans to get things done," while Meek's highlighted his Democratic credentials. The Meek ad notes that he is the only candidate who consistently opposed offshore drilling, who "took on George W. Bush" and opposes privatizing Social Security.
Crist on Tuesday campaigned at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute to highlight his support for stem cell research and how stimulus money funded important research. The lifelong Republican spent Labor Day in eastern Hillsborough County with supporters from the Teamster and pipefitters unions.
At a gathering of Democratic activists in Palm Beach County last week, a heckler demanded that County Commissioner Burt Aaronson declare his support for Meek. He did, but said afterward that Meek has a lot to prove in the next few weeks before absentee ballots go out.
"I'm waiting to see what the polls are to see if Kendrick is viable in the Senate race,'' said Aaronson. "The one thing I don't want to do is take a chance. … It's not a matter of voting for Charlie Crist. It's a matter of voting against Marco Rubio.''
Meek was in New York City on Tuesday for a fundraiser with former President Bill Clinton, where he raised an estimated $175,000. Vice President Joe Biden is headlining a fundraiser for him and other top-ticket Democrats on Sept. 24 in Hollywood.
"We will have what it takes to win this election,'' Meek said. "Just as a reminder — we were 10 points down two weeks before the last election and we were able to win by 23 points. We're going to be very, very competitive.''
Meek has been underestimated as a candidate for much of the past 18 months, and he enjoys considerable advantages that Crist lacks. The Democratic Party infrastructure is behind him, and nobody should underestimate the potential potency of Clinton campaigning for him in Democratic strongholds.
Even if the White House and national party conclude Crist is their best shot for beating Rubio, few Democratic strategists see the party overtly snubbing the only major African-American candidate running for U.S. Senate.
Crist's challenge is to make Democrats comfortable embracing him over a lifelong, stalwart Democrat. A number of prominent legislators, including Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee and state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, have endorsed Crist and some allies hope popular former South Florida congressman Robert Wexler might do the same.
Meek acknowledged the expectation gap last week when he spoke to Democrats in Delray Beach.
"I am going to make sure that everyone who ever doubted my candidacy will know that I am there fighting on behalf of people of goodwill,'' Meek told about 150 Democratic activists. "You're not going to find a candidate in this Senate race who is going to work harder than me.''
But confidence in Meek wavered from person to person. Bob Kleinberg, 76, of Lake Worth pointed to Meek's victory in the primary and said, "Don't underestimate him.''
Sitting to his left was Arnold Halperin, 83, also of Lake Worth. He shook his head when asked if he believed Meek could defeat Rubio. "I really feel Crist is a very formidable foe,'' he said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.