Gov. Charlie Crist, a pariah in the Republican Party that has been vital to his success, will launch a risky political career today as a "people's candidate" for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation.
Wednesday, Crist began telling campaign donors of his decision, which he will announce at 5 p.m. at Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg, surrounded by family members, friends, local supporters and an army of media personnel. It will be an extraordinary event in Florida's colorful political history, as a one-term governor who blew a 30-point lead in the Republican Senate primary is forced to run an unconventional race.
"I think the people are concerned about the future, and they're interested in having people who put them first, instead of politics," Crist said. "I think that's where they are."
The announcement site in Crist's hometown is in his emotional comfort zone. But it allows him to present himself as an outsider who's critical of the way his fellow Republicans are running things in Tallahassee, even though he has been a fixture in the capital for 16 years, as a state senator, commissioner of education, attorney general and governor.
"I don't think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people," said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader. "Charlie Crist has never been loyal to the Republican Party. All he has ever cared about is his own personal success and his own personal agenda."
Said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who endorsed Crist a year ago: "If he leaves the Republican Party, he has left public office. . . . I think it says more about the political opportunism of the candidate than it does about the party."
Crist, expected to remain a registered Republican, will be forced to rebuild a campaign without the logistical and financial support of the Republican Party. He'll have to hire a new manager, staff and consultants for the three-way race with Republican Marco Rubio and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek, and he is sure to be pilloried by Republicans as a political opportunist with one goal: to salvage his career.
The state party showed signs Wednesday night of disowning Crist by mostly scrubbing him from its website.
Rubio's campaign reacted to news of Crist's decision by saying, "If that is the case, tomorrow will be the best day of Charlie Crist's new campaign."
At the same time, Crist will have the bully pulpit of governor all year and the potential to redefine the race through his one-on-one campaigning skills, high name recognition and image as a centrist during a period of political turbulence.
"If anybody can do it, he can," said Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat. "He's got a lot of crossover support. He may be catching the antigovernment wave at the right moment."
Crist, who prides himself on listening to the people, polled the issue and he liked what he saw. In a three-way race, Crist is about dead even with Rubio. Meek is third.
A kickoff fundraiser is tentatively scheduled this weekend in Miami, where Crist's wife, Carole, owns a home.
Crist's go-for-broke strategy is remarkable on several levels. A politician who loathes making political enemies, he's willing to sever ties with countless Republican allies to run as a third option. Some Republicans who have been loyal to him won't be at Straub Park, such as former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Pinellas Republican state committeewoman Nancy Riley.
"Even though I'm a strong supporter of him, I'm a stronger Republican,'' Riley said. "I asked him to please stay and run as a Republican, that he's one of the finest Republicans that I know, that he has been a Republican and has great conservative credentials (but) I am a Republican first."
Greg Truax, Crist's Hillsborough County campaign chairman, is volunteering to organize the event and said he'll support Crist. "I've always supported Charlie Crist, and I always will,'' Truax said. "We'll see a lot of people from the community, longtime supporters, new supporters, family and friends."
Crist continues to ride a wave of populist support for his veto of a teacher merit pay bill, Senate Bill 6. The Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers' unions both say they will have members at the announcement. Pinellas' Robin Haines said at least 15 teachers will be standing on stage with him.
"Senate Bill 6 gave him a platform. It gave him some leverage," said James Harris, a Democratic strategist who helped Crist in his race for governor in 2006. "The governor showed he was his own man."
Harris said Crist faces the challenge of reconstructing a new political base while facing fundraising challenges and serving out his term as governor. "He's going to have to set up an entire apparatus for himself," Harris said.
Crist refused to say whether, as an unaffiliated Senate candidate, he would remain a member of the Republican Governors Association (which donated $100,000 to his 2006 effort). "I haven't really thought about it," he said. He also dismissed talk that he could be accused of dishonesty after months of declaring himself a Republican candidate.
"I've been called all kinds of things in my life so it doesn't really concern me that much," Crist said.
The governor dropped strong hints Wednesday that campaign manager Eric Eikenberg, his former chief of staff, will resign. "The decision may have something to do with that. I don't know, but I love him," Crist said.
Crist's campaign received permission from the city of St. Petersburg for today's kickoff even though the permit application was submitted Wednesday, far short of the 15 days city rules require. "It's straightforward," said city parks and recreation director Sherry McBee. "We treated it like any other event. There's no real reason to turn it down."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Rebecca Catalanello, John Frank, Lee Logan and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.