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Florida's frenzied Senate race gets even stranger as Election Day nears

Only two people in the world know for sure whether former President Bill Clinton urged Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek to bow out of the race, and both of them are denying it.

Though the ex-president's own spokesman confirmed reports that he told Meek to step aside so Gov. Charlie Crist could trip Republican Marco Rubio at the finish line, Clinton said Friday that he did no such thing.

"We did talk last week following a rally in Orlando about the race and its challenges," Clinton said in a carefully worded statement. "I didn't ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would. I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless."

Meek launched his own counteroffensive as yet another poll showed him mired in third place. He bounced over the airwaves from Fox and Friends to ABC's Good Morning America to MSNBC's Morning Joe — roughly a dozen national television appearances by day's end.

Again and again, Meek accused Crist of cooking up the whole story.

"He will do anything to win, and if that's stepping on my back, so be it," Meek said after addressing hundreds of members of the teachers' union in Orlando. "He's a hardcore politician. Don't let that smile on his face fool you."

On Friday, Meek played a voice mail message for an Associated Press reporter that he said was left by Crist on his cell phone shortly before 5 a.m. Monday. In it, Crist said that he missed Meek's call from the previous evening and that he was going to be at a campaign event where both would be speaking later that day.

"Anyway, I'll call you later this morning and see if we can work out a time to get together," Crist said in the recording. "Just you and me. Take care, buddy. Appreciate it."

When they met up, Meek said Crist asked him to consider dropping out of the race.

"I responded absolutely not, that he should probably consider doing it," Meek said.

Meek also confirmed to the Times/Herald a bizarre story about that encounter with Crist that has been buzzing around Florida political circles — that Crist offered him a cross and asked him to "pray" about whether to stay in the race.

The venue: an American Israel Public Affairs Committee gathering Monday in Hollywood, Fla.

"I was shocked when he did it," Meek told the Wall Street Journal in an interview late Friday. "I told him to keep the cross and that I carry my Christianity in my heart."

• • •

Kicking off a three-day bus tour with a pancake breakfast in Panama City, Crist insisted there was a deal between Meek and former President Bill Clinton. But Crist declined to fill in missing details.

He said he had discussions with the White House but wouldn't say with whom.

"I really can't remember, and it really doesn't matter," said Crist, when asked who initiated the discussions.

The former Republican running without party affiliation also denied that he promised to caucus with Democrats in Congress if Meek dropped out — a story line the Meek and Rubio campaigns eagerly stoked.

The conflicting accounts of what transpired between Meek and Clinton, and the confluence of spin from opposing campaigns and parties, made the truth impossible to ferret out. National Democratic leaders from DNC chairman Tim Kaine, former governor of Virginia, to Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey congressman in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, insisted Meek had never wavered, while national GOP boss Michael Steele and conservative rabble-rouser Rush Limbaugh said Democrats were steamrolling a black candidate.

Still, the flap is unlikely to significantly affect the race for Florida's open Senate seat, which has gone from one of the most unpredictable contests in the country to a foregone conclusion.

A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey released Friday showed Rubio with a "commanding and insurmountable lead'' of 45 percent, followed by Crist with 28 percent and Meek with 21 percent. Only 6 percent of voters were undecided.

"There is simply no mathematical formula by which Crist or Meek can approach Rubio's 45 percent support level," said Mason-Dixon managing director Brad Coker.

Even if Meek were to drop out now, Coker said, the math isn't there. "But the perception that national party leaders were willing to throw him under the bus to stop Rubio is a move that has likely paralyzed his campaign," he added.

More than 1.7 million people have already cast ballots at early voting sites or by mail, according to the Rubio campaign.

That's about one-third of the turnout in the 2006 mid-term election.

The Rubio campaign also said its internal polls show a dead heat between Crist and Meek, with Meek running slightly ahead among people who have already voted.

"If we ever needed a reminder of everything that is wrong with politics and wrong with Washington, this story is that reminder," Rubio said after wrapping up a Melbourne rally attended by more than 500 people. "This is a story about a backroom deal to try to influence an election on the last days of that election.''

• • •

Word of Clinton's discussions with Meek, first reported by, set off waves of hand-wringing among Democrats worried about depressed turnout in a Republican-leaning election, particularly among African-Americans. Meek is the country's only major black Senate candidate.

"He realizes his role in this race is critical to every Democratic running statewide, that he plays a terribly important role with African-American turnout," said Miami real estate mogul Stephen Bittel, a top Meek fundraiser. "I think every candidate considers their best options, but Kendrick has never wavered and he's going to fight this to the end."

Crist seemed to embrace the role of the underdog Friday at stops in Panama City and Destin. He delayed a speech to a group of about 30 supporters at a Panama City hotel to serve a woman pancakes. In Destin, he made an egg in the kitchen of Another Broken Egg restaurant and tossed a football back and forth in the parking lot.

"I don't have a political party to help me in the last four days of this race," Crist told about 100 supporters. "I have the people."

Crist counts many supporters in the teachers union, which on Friday celebrated his veto of legislation that could have made it easier to fire some teachers. A video montage of clips from The Matrix and Star Wars featured Crist in the role as hero to the villains in the Republican-led Legislature. Cheers erupted.

Krystie Diaz, a science teacher in Orange County, explained the quandary for union members, who had co-endorsed Meek and Crist.

Meek "always comes to our meetings," Diaz said. "I know who he is. I don't know the others. But I know I don't like Rubio. And I don't think Meek can win."

That's why she's probably voting for Crist on Tuesday. "It's sad, but true," she said.

Times/Herald reporters Lesley Clark and Alex Leary contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal.

Where the U.S. Senate candidates spent Friday:

Rubio: Palm Beach Gardens, Melbourne, Daytona Beach, Orlando.

Meek: Orlando and Miami

Crist: Orlando, Panama City, Destin

Florida's frenzied Senate race gets even stranger as Election Day nears 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 11:58pm]
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