Contradicting published reports and his own spokesman, former President Bill Clinton issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he did not urge fellow Democrat Kendrick Meek to drop out of the U.S. Senate race in Florida.
"We did talk last week following a rally in Orlando about the race and its challenges,'' said Clinton. "I didn't ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would. I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless.''
"I still believe he could be the best senator to help Florida and America emerge from the current crisis and build a growing middle class economy,'' Clinton said.
He described Meek as "a close friend'' and that their relationship "extends far beyond politics.''
What he didn't explain in his statement was why his spokesman Matt McKenna confirmed to the Times/Herald and other media a story first reported Thursday night by the Politico. It reported that Clinton, while campaigning with Meek last week in Florida, had twice asked Meek to withdraw from the Senate race.
The revelation that Clinton — Meek's trusted and longtime mentor — would tell him to drop the race set off a political firestorm for Meek and his campaign staff.
Beginning Thursday night, with a statement and a late night news conference, Meek's campaign called the Politico story inaccurate and reaffirmed the Miami congressman's intention to stay in the race — a race that polls show Meek mired in third place behind independent Charlie Crist and Republican front-runner Marco Rubio.
On Friday morning, Meek was up early making the rounds on several national television network news shows to refute the story and lash out at Crist.
Meek accused Crist of spreading false rumors that Clinton had asked him to withdraw from the Senate race.
"I don't operate like this, and the bottom line is, is that Charlie Crist does,'' Meek said. "It's mind-boggling.''
Meek said that Crist himself had called him during the campaign to urge him to leave the race.
"I told him I'm not getting out of the race,'' he said. "I don't sellout on the people of Florida.''
Speaking on CNN's American Morning show, Meek said he told Crist that "he should consider getting out of the race.''
Crist, a former Republican running as an independent, told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann Thursday night that he knew Meek and Clinton had talked about Meek dropping out of the Senate race.
When asked by Olbermann how he could know what the two men talked about, Crist replied: "Because I had numerous phone calls with people very close to President Clinton. It's true.''
Meek, who attended a Florida Education Association conference on Friday, questioned media reports that the White House may have known about purported efforts to get Meek to give up his campaign.
"I haven't talked to the White House, I don't know what they said,'' Meek said.
A White House official said the administration did not initiate talks between Meek and Clinton but was "aware'' and "in the position to let it play out" out of concerns about Rubio winning.
In the initial story on its website, Politico reported that Meek and Clinton spoke in Jacksonville, but Meek campaign manager Abe Dyk said they were never together in that city last week. Clinton and Meek campaigned together Tuesday in St. Petersburg and Wednesday in Orlando.
Politico later corrected its report to remove the Jacksonville reference.
The Rubio campaign took a swipe at the Crist campaign in the wake of the controversy.
"Charlie Crist truly will say and do anything to get elected and hold on to power,'' said Rubio's senior strategist, Todd Harris. "Secret deals to trade away principles for power is already the problem in Washington, its not the solution. This is simply politics as usual which is exactly what voters across the country are emphatically rejecting this election.''
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele also chimed in, saying Republicans would have been attacked for trying to push a black candidate out of a high-profile Senate race.
"If we have learned anything this election cycle, it's that voters demand the right to choose candidates for themselves, not by a political establishment seeking to make those decisions from on high. President Clinton's actions to have Kendrick Meek withdraw from the campaign sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans. One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race — in the 11th hour — a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek,'' Steele said in a statement.
A Quinnipiac University poll, released Thursday, shows Meek running a distant third behind Crist and front-runner Rubio. Meek had 15 percent of the vote; Crist had 35 percent; Rubio had 42 percent.
A Mason-Dixon poll released Friday painted a similar portrait. It shows Rubio with a "commanding and insurmountable'' lead in the statewide contest.
The poll has Rubio leading the field with 45 percent, followed by Crist at 28 percent and Meek at 21 percent. Only 6 percent of voters were undecided.
"There is simply no mathematical formula by which Crist or Meek can approach Rubio's 45 percent support level,'' said Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker.
Even if Meek were to bow out now, Coker said, the math isn't there. Early votes have already been cast and Meek's name would remain on the ballot.
"It was a pipe dream to begin with and if they were doing it, it should have been done a month ago,'' Coker said. ``In three days how do you convince every Democrat who was going to vote for Meek that Crist is the guy?''