MIAMI — Florida's U.S. Senate race turned into late-night political theater, as Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek scrambled at his Miami Gardens campaign office Thursday to quash reports that his mentor and most important political ally, former President Bill Clinton, urged him last week to quit the race.
Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist are currently splitting the Democratic vote, allowing Republican nominee Marco Rubio to surge ahead and potentially help his party take control of the U.S. Senate.
"I am looking forward to being the next U.S. senator from Florida," said a defiant Meek, lit by television cameras and surrounded by campaign volunteers chanting his name and waving signs. "President Clinton and I are good friends. . . . He's continuing to be a supporter of this campaign. I count on his support."
Clinton told CNN's Susan Candiotti Thursday: "He's trying to decide what to do, and I talked to him and I told him that — we went through everything, we talked about it a couple times — I said in the end you know you have to do what you thought was right. I think in terms of what I said to him and what he said to me, since he's my friend and he's the candidate and he wanted us to talk as we always have, I have to let him say whatever he wants to say about our conversation. It would be wrong for me to discuss it."
Meek blamed Crist for fueling rumors since the primary that he would quit: "He wants to climb on my back to get these voters."
Clinton's advice to step aside, which was first reported by Politico, was confirmed in an e-mail Thursday to the Times/Herald by Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna. The story broke hours after a Quinnipiac University poll showed Meek with only 15 percent of the vote and Crist just 7 percentage points behind Rubio's 42 percent.
Crist, a former Republican running as an independent, has been trying to squeeze Meek out of the race for weeks. He told Keith Olbermann of MSNBC Thursday night that he doesn't expect Meek to quit. Asked how he knew about the conversation between Meek and Clinton, Crist said, "Because I had numerous phone calls with people very close to President Clinton. It's true."
The Meek campaign fervently denied that he had considered leaving the race. Politico first 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 article is not true," Dyk said in a statement. "Kendrick Meek was never dropping out of this race, is never dropping out of this race, and will never drop out of this race. Kendrick Meek will always stand up for the middle class and will not leave Floridians a choice between two lifelong conservative Republicans who only stand with the special interests. Kendrick is the Democratic nominee so if anyone should drop out, it's Charlie Crist."
The Rubio campaign was also dismissive.
"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, it's not the solution. This is simply politics as usual which is exactly what voters across the country are emphatically rejecting this election."
Clinton's advice to his close pal showed just how far the Democratic political establishment is willing to go to try to keep the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands. Meek and Clinton bonded in the 1992 presidential campaign, when Meek was a Florida state trooper providing security for the visiting governor from Arkansas. In 2008, the black congressman and son of a civil rights leader, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, endorsed Clinton's wife, Hillary Clinton, over Barack Obama.
Clinton headlined 11 fundraisers for Meek — an astounding number — and three back-to-back rallies in South Florida before the primary, and two more events last week.
With Meek's standing in the race so fragile, even a rumor about him potentially leaving the race amounts to a devastating blow.
"This may not have much of an impact on the race, but it makes Meek look bad," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "His own party doesn't seem to have a lot of faith in him. He's got to carry that around now and it will make it difficult if he wants to run for office again."
Former Democratic state House Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg, a Crist supporter, credited Meek with a strong campaign but said Clinton's latest signals can't be ignored.
Speaking to about 150 Democrats on Wednesday night in Sunrise, Meek was defiant.
"This race is not over," Meek said. "This election is not over. Rick Scott as governor and Marco Rubio being elected in this state would be very dangerous."
Times/Herald staff writer Adam C. Smith and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.