When Marco Rubio announced Wednesday that he had raised a whopping $3.6 million over the past 90 days, it was another game-changer in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
This just a day after Gov. Charlie Crist bucked fellow Republicans and vetoed an elections bill he was expected to sign — and the same day he reversed course and hinted he might veto a teacher tenure bill favored by Jeb Bush and other Republican leaders. On top of that, Crist plans to call the Legislature into special session this summer to overhaul state ethics laws — an issue Republican leadership has avoided this year.
It all fed a surge in speculation that Crist is positioning himself to drop out of the Republican primary and run instead as an independent.
"I tended to think, 'he isn't going to run as an independent.' But with every passing day, I become more convinced he'll run as an independent,'' said Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee. "You've got several more pieces of legislation. He vetoed the leadership funds (elections) bill. And if he vetoes teacher tenure and there are others he vetoes that his Republican colleagues want, then it's clear which way he's heading."
Already trailing former House Speaker Rubio in the polls by double digits, Crist allies had long counted on him to have an overwhelming financial advantage. But money has started gushing into the Rubio campaign — 51,000 donors to date averaging contributions of under $100 — and Crist no longer can count on having a much bigger campaign account.
Crist has not reported how much he raised so far this year, though his totals have steadily dropped each quarter while Rubio's have risen, with his latest fundraising tally more than double his previous quarter. At the start of the year, Rubio had about $2 million available for the primary compared with $5 million for Crist.
"I continue to be humbled and energized by the outpouring of support we're receiving from voters who deserve leaders willing to defend the principles that have made America an exceptional nation,'' Rubio said Wednesday, hailing grass roots supporters "stepping up to ensure we have the resources needed to promote this message throughout Florida."
A growing number of political professionals are now doubting Crist's ability to win the Aug. 24 Republican primary, and a number of polls have suggested his best shot could be running with no party affiliation, rather than for the GOP nomination.
Crist has previously denied he's thinking about running as an independent, and on Wednesday he brushed off the question.
"I'm focused on the session," the governor said. "I'm focused on these bills that are pending and coming up shortly. That's where my focus is, there will be time for other things later."
Under Florida law, Crist has to declare whether he's running for the Republican nomination or as an independent by April 30. Unlike Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, Crist could not lose the GOP primary and then declare himself an independent or third-party candidate.
Under the independent-run scenario, Crist could remain a registered Republican but file paperwork declaring himself running as an independent or no party affiliation candidate. He could keep most of the money he has raised to date and use it for the general election, rather than a primary election. He wouldn't even be required to comply with refund requests from donors.
Then the major U.S. Senate candidates would likely be Democrat Kendrick Meek of Miami, Republican Rubio and Crist. Garnering just 35 percent of the vote could be enough to win.
"I'm convinced he's considering it,'' said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, noting how Crist has certainly been fueling the speculation lately, bucking priorities of Republican legislative leaders and asking for the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate potentially illegal activity in the state GOP.
If anyone could win as an independent Crist could, Schale noted on his blog Wednesday, but it would be a tough path: "Even if Crist got 25 percent of the Republican and Democratic vote, and a whopping 60 percent of independents (with Meek/Rubio splitting the rest), he would only get to 31 percent, several points short of a win number."
Running as an independent could also feed into the frequent criticism of Crist that he's driven by self-interest rather than principle.
"It's difficult this late in the game because I think you run the risk that even some independents and some Democrats would question how political the decision is,'' said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw. "We're in a climate where voters are looking for people who do what they say and say what they mean."
Republican state Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, a strong Crist supporter, said Crist running in anything other than the Republican Senate primary is "not even on the table and has never been on the table."
"I don't understand why people would have any second thoughts about Charlie Crist running for the Republican nomination just because he doesn't support every idea or policy coming out of the Florida Legislature,'' Fasano said. "Thankfully we do have someone challenging the Legislature at times."
Johnson, the Republican consultant, said that if Crist decides to run as an independent, it would be the political equivalent of conquistador Hernando Cortez's burning of his ships when he landed in Mexico.
"There is no turning back," Johnson said. "This is Florida. Who would have thought six months ago that we would even be talking about this. He has three weeks to decide what he's going to be. I'm not saying he can't beat Marco. There's a lot of ball to be played."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Beth Reinhard and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.