TALLAHASSEE — Marco Rubio is trouncing him in the polls, raising big money and turning into a Republican superstar.
What's Charlie Crist to do?
To hear the growing speculation in Tallahassee and inside the Washington Beltway, Gov. Crist's path to victory in the U.S. Senate race may be to forgo the Republican Party and run as an independent. Although Crist and virtually every one of his allies dismiss the notion, the chatter is rampant.
"You're going to see a very vigorous negative campaign on Charlie's part over the next 30 days trying to bring Rubio's numbers down," said Republican consultant Ana Navarro of Miami, a Rubio supporter. "But come April 15 when those fundraising numbers go public and Rubio has raised more money than him, and there's new poll numbers showing he's still far behind, I would not be surprised if Crist runs as an independent."
The Rubio campaign is fanning the rumors about Crist leaving the GOP, and almost everywhere he goes lately, reporters ask the governor about switching parties.
"It's not something I'm thinking about," Crist told the Times/Herald in Tallahassee last week. "I'm comfortable about the race. I know what the numbers are, but we've got six months to go, and the public really doesn't know the opponent."
To a Human Events reporter last week in Washington: "Some friends of mine talked to me about it, but I haven't embraced it. I'm running as a Republican."
And then in Broward County, also last week, he told the Times/Herald: "It's not going to happen.''
Crist campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said the Rubio campaign is trying to distract attention from revelations that the former House speaker double-billed the state GOP and Florida taxpayers for eight plane trips in 2007. "As soon as things get hot under the collar, this chatter starts. I'm surprised you're not hearing he's moving to Illinois or Utah,'' Eikenberg said.
Under Florida law, Crist would have to change parties by the April 30 qualifying deadline. That means Crist could not pull a Joe Lieberman — lose in the August primary and then run in the general election as an independent candidate.
The scenario goes like this: Crist concludes in late April that he simply cannot win the Republican primary — two polls last week showed him trailing Rubio by 18 points — and that his best and only hope would be to run as an independent. Using the more than $7 million he has on hand already, Crist would cast Rubio as Attila the Hun and Democrat Kendrick Meek as a sure loser and then peel off enough moderate voters and independents to win the general election.
"That would certainly end his presidential aspirations, but Charlie Crist would be formidable as an independent candidate,'' said Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger of Fort Lauderdale, a strong Meek supporter. "Objectively, I do think he has the ability to win over Democrats," he said.
Crist has staked out some centrist stances lately, strongly defending his support for the stimulus package, suggesting that the health care bill need not be entirely scrapped, and saying that he does not call for overturning Roe vs. Wade. "We ought to instead of change laws, change hearts,'' Crist said after a Christian Family Coalition gathering in Miami on Saturday.
Most political strategists, however, doubt the potential of any independent candidate in Florida. No independent candidate has won a major statewide race here.
"Even if he didn't have to give a dime back to Republicans demanding refunds, it would be the last dime he would raise,'' said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. "There would be no more D.C. money, no more major donor money."
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie noted that Florida partisan allegiances tend to be quite strong and that any Democrat or Republican starts out with at least 40 percent of the vote.
"If Crist did run as an independent, it would help Meek more than it would help Rubio, because independents are mad at Democrats right now and defaulting to Republicans," Beattie said.
Republican consultant Brett Doster said that while Crist faces serious trouble in the primary it would be riskier for him to run as an independent.
"If I were on the Charlie Crist team, I would take my chances on all my money being spent in the Republican primary,'' he said. "The known scary is always better than the unknown scary."
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.