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Crist Would Face Tough Road as an Independent

cristTALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The last politician to beat Florida Gov. Charlie Crist foresees "a very, very interesting race" for U.S. Senate as candidates take their places in the starting gate next week.

What would be a high-stakes campaign no matter the contestants is poised to be a three-way circus if Crist bolts the Republican Party and runs as an independent.

How would he fare?

Political operatives say it's a near impossibility to win a statewide campaign without the support of a major party. But they quickly add that Crist has a chance. That may be more than he has in the Republican primary, where he trails Marco Rubio significantly. U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami is the front-runner to represent Democrats in November.

Campaign infrastructure, electoral demographics and fund-raising challenges all add up to a rough, if fascinating, ride to the Nov. 4 election if Crist goes independent.

"Who would have thought, six months ago, that Marco Rubio would have a 20-point-plus lead on Charlie Crist - largely because Charlie is seen as too moderate?" said former Sen. Bob Graham, a two-term Democratic governor who for 18 years held the Senate seat Crist wants.

Those circumstances have Crist on the brink of what a year ago seemed unthinkable, leaving the Republican Party to run for the Senate seat as an independent. Beginning noon Monday, and not later than Friday, Crist has to choose if he'll stay in the Republican primary or proceed without party affiliation.

"There's never been an independent candidate elected as governor or U.S. senator in Florida," Graham said. "It's not going to be an easy task, as to what Governor Crist's staff and former fund-raisers and supporters will do if he's no longer running as a Republican."

The numbers

That's in part because the numbers are daunting. Among Florida's more than 11 million registered voters, no party has a majority.

- 42 percent are Democrats.

- 36 percent are Republicans.

- 19 percent are No Party Affiliation.

- 3 percent are registered in minor parties.

The one-in-five voters who are independent represent the key swing vote to Florida victory. Crist has been successful in his populist appeal to unaffiliated voters, but it's different if that's the base.

"The Republicans are going to be motivated by revenge," said Barney Bishop, head of Associated Industries of Florida, the Capitol's most influential lobbying group. "The Democrats, African Americans, unions and the Obama people are going to be working for Kendrick Meek. There's not going to be anybody saying, 'Get out and vote for Charlie' except Charlie."

Crist would have to take almost all the independent voters and significant chunks of Republican and Democrat voters to reach a plurality in a three-way race.

Long-term supporters and newly forged allies will help.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, which endorsed Crist in each of his races, said it will stick by him.

"We're with him 100 percent," said Matt Puckett, the PBA's deputy director. "We go with the person, not the party."

The Florida Education Association could wind up being a partial ally. The FEA ran TV spots last week thanking Crist for vetoing a merit pay for teachers bill. But the big teacher union also owes Meek for championing the 2002 class-size reduction amendment.

Another thank-you ad for the merit-pay veto included Karin Brown, president of the 325,000-member Florida Parent Teacher Association.

General election turnout in Florida has averaged 56.5 percent in non-presidential elections for the last 40 years but should be higher this fall with the governor and all three Cabinet seats on the ballot and some hot congressional elections. If 6 million votes are split by three well-known candidates, the winner needs only a little over 2 million. Crist, as a Republican, has easily topped that total running for governor, attorney general and education commissioner over the past 10 years.

But he had a united Republican Party behind him then and weakened Democratic opposition.

Democratic campaign consultant Steve Schale calculates that Crist would need about half of the no-party vote, plus more than 30 percent of the Democrats and Republicans, to pull it off. Schale echoes a sentiment heard often in Capitol corridors: It can't be done. But if anybody can do it, it's Crist.

"He starts with universal name ID and a hefty bank account," Schale wrote in a recent blog. "He's also the governor, meaning he can still earn press. ... No other potential third party candidate has had or will have those kinds of advantages -and if it were ever going to happen, the unpredictable 2010 electorate would give him a better shot than most years."

It's sure to be contentious.

"It has a lot of implications," Graham said. "One implication is how partisan - both between the parties and within the parties - our politics has become."

The money

Rubio, the former House speaker from West Miami, started running a year ago as a little-known favorite of what was then considered a fringe "tea party" faction of the Republican Party. But both he and the most conservative wing of the GOP are now in control.

Crist still leads the money race, though Rubio has narrowed the gap and out-raised Crist in the first quarter of this year. That will almost surely continue if Crist leaves the Republican Party.

- Crist has raised $10.2 million and had $7.6 million in the bank on March 31.

- Rubio raised $7.04 million and had $3.9 million on hand.

- Meek has raised $4.7 million, with $3.4 million after expenditures.

Since their man is still formally a Republican candidate, Crist campaign staffers wouldn't say if they'll work in an independent effort or find jobs with other Republicans. Crist could cobble together another staff but an angry Republican Party is sure to make its regional and county leaders line up behind Rubio and thousands of donors will want their money back.

"If he changes, I want mine back. I contributed to a Republican," lobbyist Jim Smith said. "There'll be a political firestorm if he keeps contributions from Republicans."

Legally, Crist doesn't have to make refunds and last week he indicated he doesn't intend to. He said he could tell disgruntled donors their money has been spent. But raising more will prove hard, as the GOP will start a stampede for Rubio and Democrats will bolster Meek.

The fallout

Graham, who beat then state-Senator Crist for his final term in Washington 12 years ago, said there's no going back for an officeholder who leaves either party. Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucus with the Democrats in Washington but remain independents.

Lobbyist Van Poole, a former state GOP chairman agreed with Bishop, a former executive director of the Democratic Party, that Crist can't win as an independent. Poole said Crist will probably get "a bump" in the polls for breaking with his party, but that will fade as the campaign grinds through the summer months.

"If he runs as an independent, he's finished," said Poole. "Both parties will be all over him, not just the Republicans. There'll be vengeance like you've never seen."

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