Three weeks from Election Day, the math is clear:
So long as nonpartisan candidate Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek divvy up Democratic votes, Republican Marco Rubio is poised to comfortably win a U.S. Senate seat.
There is zero evidence either Meek or Crist is remotely considering dropping out, but that's not stopping growing speculation fueled by Gov. Crist's allies. It's a sign of deep trouble for Meek that less than a week before early voting starts the Miami congressman has to repeatedly deny talk of quitting and defend his decision to continue campaigning.
"I just have a feeling that Rubio is going to win, and it scares the hell out of me. That's why I'm urging people to vote for Charlie Crist," said Ellie Forte, 80, an ardent Democratic activist who had been volunteering for Meek until recently concluding Meek can't win.
The average of recent polls compiled by Pollster.com shows Rubio pulling 43.6 percent support, Crist 28.4 percent and Meek with 21.4 percent, suggesting the only real contest is whether Crist or Meek finishes in second place.
Meanwhile, an automated poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling found that if Meek dropped out, Crist and Rubio would be tied at 46 percent, but if Crist dropped out, Rubio would lead Meek 48 percent to 41 percent. With the current field, the poll showed Rubio with 44 percent support, compared to 33 for Crist and 21 for Meek. Among Democrats, Crist and Meek were effectively tied, while Crist had 14 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of independents.
Crist met privately Monday with a group of influential Palm Beach County Democratic clubs, who in turn formally called on Meek to quit the race. The request was supposed to come in a meeting with Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson today, but Meek canceled after learning of the agenda.
"We waited this long to see what's happened with Kendrick Meek's fundraising and polling and so forth. I'm 99.8 percent certain it's hopeless for Meek,'' said Jay Weitz, chairman of the People's Choice PAC, which is made up largely of Democratic clubs representing thousands of voters.
Meek has repeatedly scoffed at the notion that he might bow out. Former President Bill Clinton will be campaigning with him in St. Petersburg and Orlando next week.
Still, nothing illustrates the tough state of his campaign than that he has to spend much of his time denying he'll quit or should quit. Crist needs to peel off more Democrats from Meek, and open doubts about Meek's viability can only help.
While Democrats enjoy a significant voter registration advantage in Florida, Democrats and Republicans each are expected to account for roughly 42 percent of the electorate in November. Crist can't win without a big share of those Democratic votes, combined with enough independents and Republicans.
On Tuesday, Crist won another prominent endorsement — from California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made his announcement via Twitter. "I endorse Gov @charliecristfl for Senate. Great leader, works with both parties, and our country needs someone like him in DC right now,'' wrote the governor, whose home-state popularity is in the cellar.
President Barack Obama has endorsed Meek, and while there's no sign of the national party investing in Florida's Senate race, don't expect many national Democrats to snub this year's only credible African-American Senate candidate.
State Sen. Chris Smith, who represents a heavily African-American district in Broward County, called it "offensive" that Crist allies would fan rumors about Meek quitting.
"This is a young man who has slayed many Goliaths. He beat a billionaire who did nothing but slander his name,'' Smith said on a conference call Tuesday that Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman held to stress loyalty to Meek.
"Kendrick Meek has no reason to even think about dropping out," she said.
If there's any spoiler in the race it's Crist, said Meek campaign spokesman Adam Sharon.
"Charlie Crist can't win. He has no pathway. He wants to talk about a coalition but this coalition never was and never will be,'' said Sharon, insisting the Democratic nominee is the only one who can overwhelmingly win Democratic votes. "Charlie Crist lost to Marco Rubio once, and he wants to lose to him again, and that's the path we're on right now."
Meek has spent nearly two years campaigning across the state and he has repeatedly made it clear he has zero respect for Crist. There is no hint from him that he might clear a path for a politician who changed parties because he could not win the GOP nomination.
Still, a growing number of Democrats rooting for Crist are keeping hope alive.
"If (Meek) were offered something interesting enough by the president of the United States, why wouldn't you take a complete loss and turn it into something useful,'' said Andre Fadell, a leading Palm Beach Democratic operative. "If it's about what's best for the country, step aside, if it's about what's best for the Democratic Party, step aside, if it's about what's best for Kendrick Meek, well, you decide."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]