Charlie Crist is poised to leap into the great unknown.
Because if, as widely expected, he runs for the U.S. Senate as an unaffiliated, independent candidate, all the long-held political assumptions about America's biggest battleground state are out the window.
Is the path to victory once again the swing-voter swath in the Interstate 4 corridor? Not necessarily. Does a race pitting two Republicans against one Democrat help the Democrat in a state with more registered Democrats? Don't count on it. Florida elections are decided in the middle, so wouldn't that bode well for Crist? No one knows.
"The fact that the Democrats don't have an overwhelming candidate and the fact that (Marco) Rubio has run so far to the right as the tea party candidate, allows Charlie a window, albeit a small one,'' Democratic consultant Bob Buckhorn of Tampa said. "It's a very small window and it's an unprecedented strategy, but I don't see that he has any other way."
Thirty-five percent of the vote could be enough to win, but partisanship runs deep in Florida where even barely credible Republican or Democratic candidates typically get at least 40 percent. The last two polls assessing a three-way U.S. Senate race in Florida underscore the confounding landscape:
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found a dead heat with Crist as an unaffiliated candidate receiving 32 percent support, Republican Rubio 30 percent, and Democrat Kendrick Meek 22 percent. An automated Rasmussen poll a few weeks earlier found Rubio winning by 17 percentage points — 42 percent to 25 percent for Meek and 20 percent for Crist.
The governor is telling people he has no intention of abandoning the campaign altogether, and he brushed off questions Tuesday about previously vowing to remain in the GOP primary.
"Things change," said Crist, who must make a decision no later than April 30.
Republican leaders in Tallahassee and Washington continue to turn on him.
"During the past few months, Gov. 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," Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul said Tuesday, endorsing Rubio.
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the U.S. House, also endorsed Rubio. And Sen. John McCain, who won the 2008 presidential nomination in part because of Crist's support before the Florida primary, said he'd yank his endorsement if Crist ran as an independent.
"I support Republicans," McCain told the Hill newspaper.
Sen. George LeMieux, Crist's former campaign manager and Senate appointee, said he spoke to his old boss Tuesday about the matter.
"My view is that he should run as a Republican," LeMieux said.
As an independent, Crist would likely lose most or all of his campaign staff as well as the party machinery that helps mobilize voters. And the move would energize many conservatives and provide a fundraising bonanza for Rubio.
Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, though, said Crist could peel off many Democrats if they are persuaded Meek is unlikely to win.
"Kendrck Meek has been largely marginalized throughout this contest between Rubio and Crist and probably would continue to be so. So you get in effect an open Republican primary where significant numbers of Democrats could come to the conclusion that Kendrick is not going to win," Stipanovich said.
He hopes Crist runs as a Republican, but said Crist as an independent no longer would have to worry about trying to out-conservative Rubio.
"You had Charlie Crist trying to get to the right and getting body blocked by Marco Rubio,'' Stipanovich said. "Now conceivably Marco Rubio would need to move left toward the center where he will be body blocked by Charlie Crist."
Democratic strategist Todd Wilder suggested the key battleground could be north Florida, where Dixiecrat Democrats may be skeptical of the Miami politicians — Rubio, Meek or Democratic underdog Maurice Ferre.
"I look at where those conservative Democrats and those moderate to liberal Republicans are going to break, and that's where the fight's going to be,'' Wilder said.
Crist spent Tuesday evening at the Governor's Mansion welcoming the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and supporters for a concert that featured one of his favorites: Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.
As he welcomed the crowd, Crist noted the "therapeutic'' effect of music.
"No matter what you are going through — and in the past couple of weeks, it's been very soothing,'' he said.
Senior correspondent Lucy Morgan and staff writers Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.