TAMPA — Now it's two against one — against Gov. Charlie Crist.
The morning after Florida's tumultuous primaries, Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek have the independent U.S. Senate candidate squarely in their sights.
To Democrat Meek, the general election puts him against two career Republicans — Crist and Rubio. To Republican Rubio, it's him against two supporters of Barack Obama's agenda — Crist and Meek.
"It's going to be a pretty clear choice in Florida,'' Rubio told a group of GOP activists and elected officials at a "Reclaim America" rally in Tampa on Wednesday. "If you like the way things are going in Washington, D.C., if you are happy with the direction our country is going, you should not vote for me."
Crist, who dropped out of the GOP in April, is trying to make history as the first nonpartisan candidate to win a major statewide race in Florida.
"I can't tell you how many people I run into in airports and all across the state, no matter where it is, that say, 'I'm so glad you're running as an independent. Finally somebody that's going to put me first instead of their political party.' And we are,'' Crist told supporters at his St. Petersburg campaign headquarters.
But even that simple gathering underscores the challenge facing Crist.
Meek and Rubio can rely on party infrastructures for efforts as big as voter turnout programs and as simple as drawing a crowd. Crist has none of that support structure, which may explain why his rally Wednesday was virtually identical to one in May, featuring many of the same longtime friends, political allies and family members.
As of their last campaign finance reports, Crist had more than $8 million on hand, compared to nearly $4.5 million for Rubio and $2.6 million for Meek.
Polls show him in a neck-and-neck race with Rubio, but Crist is counting on winning considerable Democratic support. Meek's overwhelming primary victory over billionaire real estate mogul Jeff Greene could make that tougher, as Meek enjoys solid Democratic establishment support and boosted his image as a strong campaigner.
Meek is a distant third in recent polls, but he campaigned across the state Wednesday expecting his big primary win would knock down doubts about his ability to win in November.
Meek's campaign sent out three news releases reflecting a key strategy going forward: reminding voters about Crist's Republican past. One was a letter Crist sent to Meek in March urging him to vote against health care reform in Congress.
Once reminded of Crist's record and Meek's landslide victory against a self-funding billionaire, the thinking goes, Democratic skepticism about Meek's statewide appeal will fade.
"I think you have to tell the story of how he beat Jeff Greene,'' said real estate investor Stephen Bittel, one of Meek's major fundraisers. "Those traditional Democratic voters — we've got to hold every one of them. And I think we will.''
The Rubio campaign similarly argues that Democrats will start to drift toward Meek.
"Our campaign believes that having Kendrick as the Democratic nominee is going to begin the process of returning political gravity in Florida back to normal,'' said Rubio adviser Todd Harris. "He's a credible candidate for the Democratic Party, and we think the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters are going to rally behind him.''
The Rubio and Meek campaigns are both hammering Crist as a typical politician who will say anything to be elected and who lacks core convictions.
"If (a candidate) won't even tell you who they are going to vote for as majority leader, one of the most important jobs in government … then how can we hold them accountable?'' Rubio said Wednesday, referring to Crist repeatedly ducking questions about whether he would caucus with Republicans or Democrats if elected to the Senate as an independent.
Depending on how many Senate seats Republicans pick up in November, Crist could be the person who decides which party controls the Senate.
"I get asked these inside baseball questions all the time: 'Who are you going to caucus with?' Who cares?'' Crist said. "I'm going to work for the people of Florida, that's what really matters."
Some Democrats are sticking with Crist, arguing that a vote for the lesser-known Meek amounts to a vote for the conservative Republican nominee.
Democratic consultant Freddy Balsera, who has advised President Barack Obama on Hispanic issues, held a fundraiser for Crist in Coral Gables on Monday. "I don't think it's a question of me not supporting (Meek.) … I see a guy in Marco Rubio who even though he's Hispanic has an anti-Latino agenda. He's against comprehensive immigration reform and in favor of the Arizona law. It would set our community back decades to have someone like that representing our state in Washington. … What matters to me is that the candidate who wins shares these positions, and I feel Crist is well positioned to do that."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.