With Gov. Charlie Crist facing a brutal Republican U.S. Senate primary or a full-blown party mutiny if he runs as an independent, prominent supporters are urging him to consider a third option: quitting altogether.
The toughest assessment came from the arm of the national Republican Party that had clamored to endorse Crist and shove aside rival Republican Marco Rubio nearly one year ago, when their positions in the polls were reversed.
"We believe there is zero chance Gov. Crist continues running in the Republican primary," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senate Committee, in a memo. "It is our view that if Gov. Crist believes he cannot win a primary then the proper course of action is he drop out of the race and wait for another day."
The memo added that Texas Sen. John Cornyn, NRSC chairman, would have delivered the advice personally — if Crist had returned his phone call.
The governor confirmed his party's fears when he acknowledged for the first time Monday — after weeks of denying it — that he's considering an independent bid. Down roughly 20 points in the polls despite weeks of anti-Rubio television ads, Crist quietly yanked weekend spots in Tampa Bay and Orlando.
"I'm getting all kinds of advice," Crist said in a telephone interview, dismissing pressure from national Republicans. "I take my cues from people in Florida. That's what I care about."
Crist added: "I want to be very thoughtful in this. This is a decision that has to be made by (April) 30th, and I want to do what's right for the people of our state."
Campaigning for Rubio in Tampa, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a crowd of about 200 people that he expects Crist to "do the right thing."
The former Massachusetts governor added: "I hope that he stays in the Republican primary or, if he decides he doesn't think he can win that, that he steps aside and gets behind Marco Rubio."
Romney is the third former presidential candidate to throw his support to the former House speaker from Miami, following former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. In a political high-wire act, Rubio is balancing establishment endorsements with grass-roots support from tea party activists.
Though Crist took down his TV ads, his campaign continued the attack by accusing Rubio of "unethical spending habits'' in a news release and calling on him to post his tax returns. Crist has said Rubio should amend his tax filing to reflect about $3,000 he pocketed when he double-billed taxpayers and the state party for several airfares to Tallahassee when he was House speaker.
Former state party chairman Al Cardenas said Crist could do long-term damage to the GOP if he bowed out of the Aug. 24 primary and ran as an independent in November. The switch would create a potentially competitive three-way race between Rubio, Crist and the likely Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami.
With Democrats ahead by 700,000-plus voters in Florida, Republican candidates rely on independent voters for statewide success, Cardenas said. A well-known independent candidate, he said, could hurt the GOP's outreach to nonpartisan voters and the Hispanic electorate.
"This is not just about Charlie Crist," Cardenas said. "From a value and character standpoint, he should either stay the course as a Republican despite the overwhelming odds or step aside for the good of the party."
Cardenas added, "I can't think of one elected or former elected official who would support the governor if he ran as an independent." If true, Rubio could gain prominent Crist backers such as former Sen. Mel Martinez, whose early retirement paved the way for the Senate contest.
It's also unclear whether Crist's top campaign advisers and staff in the governor's office would stay if he left the party. Donors could ask for their money back, though the law doesn't require that Crist return it.
As the governor faces one of the toughest decisions of his career, he seems to be isolating himself from friends and political advisers accustomed to frequent phone calls.
"I haven't had one conversation with him about running as an independent despite our long friendship," said Miami lawyer Manny Kadre, a Republican who has hosted Crist fundraisers. "Either he's waiting for the right opportunity or he doesn't want to hear my answer."
Even Crist's closest confidant and ex-campaign manager, whom he appointed to fill Martinez's seat, Sen. George LeMieux, said on MSNBC Monday that an independent bid ''didn't even come up'' when they spoke over the weekend.
One option for Crist if he drops out would be to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012. That would set up an awkward collision with LeMieux, widely expected to run against Nelson.
Crist could also run for a second term as governor. Part of his calculation for the Senate seat is whether his political career would be destroyed if he ran as an independent and lost.
"I like Crist fine," said Matilda Pelaez, a Tampa teacher at the Rubio rally, "but if he ran as an independent that would make him a traitor."
For a morale boost, Crist visited his alma mater of St. Petersburg High School, where a friendly group of students waited for him and his wife, Carole, in the courtyard and the band played the 1981 hit Don't Stop Believin' by Journey.
Of the Republican-backed teacher tenure bill he vetoed last week, Crist told the crowd of about 200 people, "I think it started out relatively well. And as we went along the way, people might have gotten a little bit ideologically greedy and started putting things in this bill that were not needed or necessary."
Again and again, Crist used language that seemed designed to reach political moderates.
"There's a distinction between Republican leadership and Republicans," he said. He added later, "Sometimes when you're in a sort of bubble in Washington or Tallahassee, people lose sight of what the real goal is and what the right outcome should be."
Times staff writers Ron Matus and Aaron Sharockman contributed.