MIAMI — The nation's largest swing state boasts a time-honored tradition: run to the right to win the Republican primary, to the left to win the Democratic primary — then race to the middle for the general election.
But with Gov. Charlie Crist expected to announce Thursday in St. Petersburg that he will run as an independent candidate for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, the script is changing.
Crist's nonpartisan bid would allow him to forgo an anticipated thrashing by former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and pave the way for a potentially competitive three-way contest against Rubio as the likely GOP nominee and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami as the likely Democrat. That means Florida's next senator could be elected Nov. 2 with as little as 34 percent of the vote, upending the usual quest for mass appeal in an increasingly diverse state of 11 million voters.
"In a tight, three-way race, there's a bigger premium on making sure you are targeting your supporters and getting them to polls, as opposed to persuading voters," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown, whose recent survey found Crist slightly ahead of the pack if he ran as an independent and Rubio in second place. "When you don't need a majority, when a plurality is what matters, there's a smaller target."
At a rally Tuesday in West Miami where Rubio signed paperwork to run in the GOP primary, he said he wouldn't remodel his current campaign agenda, tailormade for conservative Republicans. Rubio has focused on bashing President Barack Obama's economic policies, but along the way he has questioned whether climate change is man-made, stopped short of affirming Obama's U.S. citizenship and opposed the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
"I think my positions are mainstream American positions," Rubio said when asked if he's too conservative to win a general election in Florida. "Who I am and why I'm running is not going to change based on the political calculus."
Candidates typically start moderating their platform once the primary is behind them and the general election campaign is under way. But a three-way race would make it easier for Rubio and Meek to cater to their own parties because they don't need as many crossover and independent votes as they would in a two-man contest. Races in Florida are typically decided by the political middle ground, which helped Obama capture the state in 2008 and Crist win election in 2006.
Crist — whose moderate approach has increasingly grated on Republicans — continued to deflect questions Tuesday in Tallahassee about his political future. He said he would make a decision by Thursday, the day before his last legislative session as governor wraps up.
Crist alienated Republicans by supporting Obama's economic stimulus package and failed to repair his image even when he joined conservatives on issues like the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. Campaign strategists say Crist's only hope is to try to cobble together support from voters across the political spectrum, though he would lack the turnout and fundraising operations typically fueled by a political party.
In a sign of the partisan backlash facing Crist, the pro-Rubio Club for Growth said Tuesday that it would push the governor to return donations from Republican contributors if he runs as an independent. Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter was pressured into returning more than $1 million when he switched from Republican to Democrat in 2009.
A three-way race is expected to draw more attention to Meek, who has been largely overshadowed by the backbiting between the two Republicans. One built-in advantage for Meek in a general election is the Democratic Party's 750,000-voter lead over the GOP. Meek spokesman Adam Sharon said the campaign was not worried about losing Democratic and independent voters to the politically moderate governor.
"I don't see a Facebook page of people who are trying to draft Charlie to run as an independent," Sharon said. (In fact, there is such a group. By late Tuesday, it had 204 fans.)
Meek has consistently voted with his party, though he has tried to assert his independence by drawing attention to his disagreements with the Democratic administration on Israel, Cuba and space program funding.
Meek's statewide drive to gather more than 125,000 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot instead of paying a fee laid a strong groundwork for a general election campaign, Sharon said. He said the Miami Democrat has made "countless'' trips to conservative North Florida.
"We spent July 4th in Sopchoppy and Lynn Haven, and the feedback was that statewide Democratic candidates never go there," Sharon said. "This petition effort really got him out there far and wide."
Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, who is challenging Meek for the Democratic nomination, plans to qualify for the ballot today in Tallahassee.
At the West Miami rally Tuesday, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa took a shot at Crist and praised Rubio "as a person who is loyal to the party where he started." But in a sign that he may already be shifting into general election campaign mode, Rubio — after months of calling for strong border control — balked at a new Arizona law cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Hispanic and immigrant advocates say the law, which gives the police sweeping powers to detain suspected illegal immigrants, will lead to ethnic and racial profiling.
"I think the law has potential unintended consequences," Rubio said, adding that the requirement to carry immigration papers is "not really something that Americans are comfortable with, the notion of a police state."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.