During his recent debate against Marco Rubio on Fox News, Gov. Charlie Crist seemed to stamp out speculation that he'd run as an independent in the Florida Senate race. When Chris Wallace asked if he was "ruling out that you will file as an independent," Crist responded, "That's right. That's right. I'm running as a Republican."
He may want to rethink that, though. Rubio is increasingly looking unstoppable. Today, his campaign announced that it raised $3.6 million in the first quarter—a blockbuster figure. Until now, the only major weakness Rubio appeared to have against Crist was in the money race, and Rubio has now resolved it. The polls uniformly show Rubio leading Crist by double digits. More importantly, they show that Republican primary voters in Florida are now familiar with Rubio and like what they see. A recent Mason-Dixon poll, for instance, showed that Rubio's name recognition is now 87 percent, compared to about 50 percent last June. During that time, his favorable rating jumped from 24 percent to 42 percent, while his unfavorable rating only increased from 5 percent to 10 percent. Crist's popularity, on the other hand, has plunged. And his recent attacks against Rubio—over his opponent's profligate spending, over contradictions between Rubio's past record and current rhetoric—have so far failed to reverse the momentum of the race.
Making predictions in a contest as turbulent as this one is dangerous. But it's getting harder and harder to imagine Crist's path to the nomination. "My bet right now is 60-40 Rubio," says Brad Coker, Mason-Dixon's managing director. The only potential game changers, in his view: "some sort of major revelation or scandal or just a totally stupid statement" by Rubio—none of which seem likely from a candidate who has proven tremendously disciplined.
Which brings us back to the possibility of Crist running as an independent. The Orlando Sentinel's Mike Thomas recently offered 10 solid reasons why doing so makes sense. Among them: Crist could cobble together a strong coalition of Panhandle voters, gun-rights advocates, pro-choice women, and moderates of both parties. It would also be a far more natural positioning for Crist. He's moderate, pragmatic, and consensus-seeking by nature. He simply doesn't fit in the angry, obstructionist, right-wing party that the GOP is increasingly becoming.
Despite Crist's denials, some of his recent moves would align nicely with an independent run. He recently said he wouldn't call for overturning Roe v. Wade. During the Fox News debate, he defended his acceptance of federal stimulus dollars and argued that some aspects of health-care reform were laudable. This week, he bucked his party by vetoing a GOP-backed bill that would have revived powerful fundraising vehicles that Florida Republicans were clamoring for. These don't look like the actions of a man locked in a losing primary battle against a right-wing darling. So perhaps Crist is mulling the possibility of running as an independent after all. We'll know soon; the filing deadline is April 30.