Gov. Charlie Crist didn't just walk away from the Republican Party Thursday — he ran, saying he would abandon his lifelong GOP voter registration as he launches an independent and unprecedented campaign for the U.S. Senate.
"I know this is uncharted territory,'' said Crist, flanked by his parents, three sisters and wife at a hastily thrown together rally of about 300 supporters in a downtown park. "I'm aware of that. I am aware that after this speech ends, I don't have either party helping me. I need you, you the people, more than ever.''
Casting his decision as putting "the people" before politics, Crist said, "As someone who has served the people of Florida for 15 years, from the state Senate to the Governor's Mansion, I can confirm what most Floridians already know: Unfortunately, our political system is already broken.''
Left unsaid was the obvious reason for his decision: former House Speaker Marco Rubio was poised to trounce him in the Aug. 24 Republican primary, in one of the most stunning reversals in Florida politics.
Crist's widely anticipated announcement was immediately followed by an avalanche of harsh condemnations from most every top Republican in Florida, who accused him of putting his own ambition above all else.
"This decision is not about policy or principles,'' said former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has all but endorsed Rubio. "It is about what he believes is in his political self-interest.''
Crist had steadfastly denied for weeks that he would abandon the party that nurtured his career for decades.
After being pilloried for embracing President Barack Obama's stimulus package and other policies favored by Democrats, Crist now faces being branded as the ultimate traitor to his party. In a closely divided U.S. Senate, a seat long viewed as a Republican sure bet is now up for grabs in a race in which Rubio and Crist could split the party's voters.
"He did not keep his word,'' said the arm of the national party that oversees Senate campaigns, which yanked the endorsement it gave the then-popular governor immediately after he first announced his campaign one year ago. Florida Republican chairman John Thrasher quipped he was taking the governor's portrait down from the party headquarters and putting it on eBay.
"Betrayal! Betrayal!'' a heckler shouted at the governor as he made his way through a throng of supporters after the rally.
The announcement virtually hands the Republican nomination to Rubio, the newly crowned giant-slayer of the 2010 election, and thrusts overlooked Democratic frontrunner Kendrick Meek into the center ring. An already volatile race becomes a free-for-all between three major candidates. Florida's next senator could be elected Nov. 2 with less than 35 percent of the vote.
"I think all three of them have a very legitimate shot here. When you're talking about winning in the 30s, all bets are off,'' said Democratic consultant Eric Johnson, adding that he would not be surprised if Crist won handily or lost overwhelmingly.
The crowd in St. Petersburg's Straub Park included hometown friends, environmentalists riled up about offshore drilling and educators enthused by Crist's recent veto of a contentious teacher tenure bill. On the stage was former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a Democrat who often supports Republicans, and longtime friend and civic activist Watson Haynes, a prominent Republican who said he was switching parties in solidarity with Crist.
"He's my friend, that's my brother. Of course I'm sticking with him,'' said Brent Sembler, a top Republican fundraiser and Crist's finance chairman.
Democratic supporter Fred Edwards came to the rally with new campaign signs that tellingly omitted the word "Republican.'' His own state party said Crist was "deserting his post," but Edwards said the GOP was squeezing out a moderate.
"He didn't leave the Republican Party. They left him,'' Edwards said. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think he could pull this off.''
Crist's independent campaign launch comes at a time when recession-weary voters are furious at incumbents in both parties and threatening revenge at the ballot box.
"In reaction to Washington and Tallahassee, I've just really become turned off by what I see both parties doing,'' said registered independent John Stross, a developer and restaurant owner cheering Crist's decision. "The Republican Party has moved so far to the right, and the Democrats so far to the left — neither one represents me any more.''
Both the Meek and Rubio campaigns argued that Crist's announcement would help them, but looming over each are unpredictable and potentially giant obstacles.
Rubio is the subject of a preliminary IRS inquiry into potential misuse of his state GOP credit card.
Meek appears to have little to worry about from underfunded Democratic rivals, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre and former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns. But Jeff Greene, a billionaire investor from Palm Beach is expected to qualify as a Democratic candidate before today's deadline.
The chaotic race cements Florida's position as the perennial center of the political universe. Every step of Crist's stunning downfall, every blip of speculation about how he could salvage his campaign, has been closely monitored nationwide.
Some argue his downfall reflects an electorate tired of self-serving politicians who put ambition above all else. Others say it's a signal that the Republican Party has lurched so far to the right that pragmatic moderates are no longer welcome.
"The latest example of the corrosive civil war waging among Republicans,'' said Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine.
Crist faces crucial unanswered questions going forward, including whether he can raise enough money and hire capable campaign professionals.
Asked who will lead his campaign with the departure of key staffers such as campaign manager Eric Eikenberg and pollster Glen Bolger, Crist beamed. "Right here,'' he said, pointing to himself.
Crist sent a letter to state lawmakers releasing them from their endorsements, acknowledging "the difficult position'' he had put them in. The move spares Crist the potentially embarrassing spectacle of losing his dwindling band of elected supporters.
Rubio and Meek sought to catch a sliver of the spotlight Thursday, each holding multiple news conferences and public events to get the most mileage out of Crist's announcement.
Said Meek: "For those voices that have said we're left out of the debate, I think we're right smack in the middle of it."
"To me it's not a factor. I knew when I started this race that my opponents supported the Obama liberal agenda,'' Rubio said of Crist and Meek during a visit with supporters in Coral Gables. "I just didn't realize I'd have to run against both of them at the same time.''
Thrown together by a few loyalists, the rally lacked the slick production value of a typical Crist event. In a sign the campaign was winging it, a statement after the rally said Crist would remain a registered Republican, but Crist told the Times/Herald he intended to change his registration to no party affiliation.
"No, I'm an independent,'' he said. "Why not? If you're going to do it, do it. Let's go.''
On the difference between the three major candidates: "If you want somebody on the right or you want somebody on the left you have the former speaker, Rubio, or the congressman, Meek. If you want somebody who has common sense, who puts the will of the people first, who wants to fight for the people first, now you've got Charlie Crist. You have a choice."
Which party will he caucus with in the Senate if he is elected? "The people of Florida. I'll caucus with anybody who will help the people of Florida.''
While other Crist staffers promptly resigned, finance director Dane Eagle, who carried Crist's bags when he ran for governor in 2006, said he was "going all the way." He left the event holding a trademark of Crist's public appearances in each hand — two portable fans to keep the governor cool.
"I don't like politics,'' he said. "I just like him.''
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan and Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark and David Smiley contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.