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Will he or won't Crist jump the GOP? Governor's got two weeks

Marco Rubio might as well take a couple of weeks off and relax.

Because April 30 is the deadline for Gov. Charlie Crist to declare whether he's running for U.S. Senate as a Republican or independent or at all. Until Crist makes his intention clear, there is almost nothing Crist or Rubio can do to transcend the looming question.

Everywhere he goes, Crist faces the independent candidacy query, and while stalwart Republican supporters across Florida are holding their breath, the governor seems in no rush to put it to rest.

"I'm not thinking about that today," Crist told inquiring reporters Friday at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami, a day after vetoing a contentious teacher tenure bill in Tallahassee. "We'll look at that later on," Crist said.

As he trails Republican rival Rubio by an average of more than 20 points in polls even after weeks of anti-Rubio TV ads, Crist has to answer some important questions: Is running as a no-party affiliation candidate his only chance at winning? Would his entire campaign team quit? Would most or all of his longtime Republican supporters and money-raisers abandon him?

"Charlie and I have a personal relationship, a longtime friendship and loyalty. I would not answer that hypothetical question,'' said Dr. A.K. Desai, a St. Petersburg insurance executive and top Republican money-raiser, who is helping host a Crist fundraising reception Sunday at the house of Crist's sister in St. Petersburg.

Tampa developer Al Austin, another elite GOP money-raiser, also declined to speculate on what he would do if Crist ran as an independent. "I'm going to cross that bridge if I get there. I don't know. If he ran as a no-party and kept his Republican registration, that would make it even tougher for me to decide,'' Austin said.

The former state GOP finance director said that while he strongly supports teacher accountability, his daughter teaches special needs children and saw serious flaws in Senate Bill 6. "That was a tough stance Charlie took and it was very politically risky, but he showed leadership in doing what was probably the right thing," Austin said. "Charlie has made mistakes, but he has tried to do the right thing."

The veto prompted Crist's mentor, former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, to resign as campaign chairman and antagonized many other Republican officials.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, ended his neutrality Friday and endorsed Rubio for the Senate. "The last few weeks have proved that Marco Rubio is a conservative," McKeel told the Times/Herald. "The governor is a very nice guy, and a good friend, but he's not a conservative."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, endorsed Crist for the Senate a year ago and would not say whether he will revoke it. Crist counts Weatherford among his strongest allies in the House. "I'm very disappointed," said Weatherford, who is in line to be House speaker in 2012. "The governor is a friend of mine and I like him as a person, but certainly, his veto of that bill did not help him with Republicans in general."

On the other hand, many of the most vocal supporters of the bill, notably former Gov. Jeb Bush, signaled long ago their preference for Rubio. Crist signing the bill would have been unlikely to change that.

And according to the campaign, the veto generated a lot of energy.

"The campaign office has been inundated with support, Whether it's campaign contributions online or people e-mailing to our Web site to volunteer, to get yard signs, to walk precincts … we've been inundated," said Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg. "And these are Republicans. These are individuals who supported the governor in his decision. There are Democrats who have called as well, and we've had a number call to say they're switching for this primary. The energy we've felt in the last 12 hours is enormous."

Much of the political world is already convinced Crist has made up his mind to run as an independent, but plenty of longtime friends have doubts.

"He is for lower taxes. He has pushed for small government. He is pro life. He is pro gun. That doesn't sound like a Democrat to me. I don't know what people are looking for. If they are looking for angry, he is not an angry kind of guy," said state Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami. "It's like if we don't spit at (President Barack) Obama, somehow we are bad Republicans."

Republican state committeeman Paul Bedinghaus, one of Crist's Tampa Bay campaign chairs, was among numerous supporters who declined to speculate about whether he would still support Crist as an independent candidate. "He should stay the course. I don't see him doing that,'' Bedinghaus said. "That would be putting it all on the table and gambling it all — his entire future."

Former education commissioner Jim Horne strongly supported the teacher tenure bill, but he's sticking with Crist. "Friends stick with friends, even though we don't always agree on some policy,'' Horne said. "His personality is one where he really does try to draw all sides together, he wants to reach consensus and I think he genuinely and sincerely believed that the process did not involve the input of the teachers like he would have liked to have seen."

Should Crist run as an independent? "I certainly hope not," Horne said. "I am a Republican. He is a Republican."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet and Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Will he or won't Crist jump the GOP? Governor's got two weeks 04/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 12:22am]

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