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Crist Cash Crunch Sparks Creation of New 527 Group

Supporters of Gov. Charlie Crist are taking steps to armor his independent U.S. Senate campaign against an expected massive spending campaign by the national Democratic and Republican parties.

Longtime Crist backer, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has formed a 527 organization called Friends for Freedom and Prosperity, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash to support the governor’s candidacy against presumptive Republican opponent Marco Rubio and the Democratic winner of the primary pitting U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami against billionaire Jeff Greene.

Fasano made the initial investment in the Crist 527 fund – transferring $5,000 from his own political committee, Floridians for Principled Government. But Fasano said he expects plenty more donations to flow toward Crist to counter a likely tens of millions of dollars in support of his opponents from the Democratic and Republican senatorial committees.

Former Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, is among those helping raise cash for the committee, Fasano said.

“It always comes down to the same thing,” Fasano said. “People want to give to a winner – they want to be part of a winning team. And as they see the governor looking like he’s going to be elected to represent Florida in the Senate, then they’ll respond.”

Orlando lawyer John Morgan, usually a heavy Democratic contributor, is a Crist supporter who told the News Service of Florida on Friday that he plans to raise millions and also personally give the independent contender, “as much as I can spare.”

“He’s going to win,” Morgan said of Crist. “I plan on asking lawyers. I think you’ll see teachers giving. And you’ll see plenty of Republicans giving, too. People are going to have to make a decision whether they want to get on board or not.”

Polls show Crist, who broke with the Republican Party on April 29, still ahead in the three-way Senate race. Some polls, including one conducted for the state’s Republican-heavy Chamber of Commerce, show Crist widening his lead in recent weeks, powered by his steady media presence on state and national television as he travels almost daily to the Panhandle surveying Gulf oil spill damage.

None of the campaigns were willing to disclose campaign finance totals they will report, based on the June 30 quarterly close. While Crist was the race’s money leader, with $10 million on hand following March’s first-quarter end, he is likely now eclipsed by Rubio who has been out-pacing the governor in donations for months.

Crist’s campaign is untethered to either party. And that means he is largely reliant on raising campaign cash through $2,400 donations, the maximum individual contribution, per-election allowed in federal races. Federal campaign finance laws also prohibit candidates from accepting corporate contributions

Following the Aug. 24 primaries Rubio and the eventual Democratic nominee are expected to draw the bulk of their financial support from state and national parties, but Crist will need to draw firepower from 527s, named for the section of the IRS code governing them. These political committees can accept big individual, corporate and association dollars and have already emerged as a powerful force in the Florida Republican primary for governor.

In that contest, Attorney General Bill McCollum initially distanced himself but later acknowledged that he is raising contributions for two 527s supporting his candidacy.

House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, also have steered more than $1 million from committees they’re associated with to 527s backing McCollum. The attorney general’s rival in the governor’s race, multi-millionaire Rick Scott, has created his own 527 committee, in part, to skirt state campaign finance laws that cap spending at $24.9 million.

Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos said he expects Crist will be able to attract plenty of contributions to the Friends for Freedom and Prosperity committee. But Burgos said these donations also will expose the political leanings of those expecting to gain if Crist is elected.

“There is no shortage of liberal interests who want to keep Marco Rubio from going to the Senate,” Burgos said. “Charlie Crist is the first candidate in state history who is trying to be elected backed by liberal Democrats and the old Republican establishment. They’re afraid of the kind of solid conservatism that Marco Rubio will bring to the Senate.”

Adam Sharon, a Meek spokesman, said he didn’t fear Crist drawing contributions that otherwise would go to the Democratic candidate. The Florida Education Association, which has issued a dual Crist-Meek endorsement in the Senate race, sent a blast e-mail earlier this week to members and supporters urging they give to the Democrat in advance of the June 30 close of the campaign fund-raising quarter.

“Charlie Crist’s support is on top of a house of cards,” Sharon said. “This 527 won’t bring him much money. And once Meek is the Democratic nominee, the Democratic support will hold and come around to him.”

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