Can Crist Win by Running Up the Middle?

Is there a middle in American politics? Charlie Crist's decision to run as an independent will test that proposition in the ultimate testing ground of American politics: the I-4 corridor in Central Florida. The Congress Crist is seeking to enter is more divided along partisan lines than at least a century. In the states, the parties (especially the Republicans) are being pulled in opposite directions by grassroots anger and ideology. Even President Obama—who ran on a theme of unity, colorblindness, and a new harmony in Washington—is talking in partisan, pointillist terms about rallying his base (and not much else) this fall.

The consensus among people I talked to in Florida is that Crist had NO hope of winning the GOP primary against conservative tyro Marco Rubio. "This is the only way Crist has any kind of shot," said Mitch Ceasar, a lawyer and well-connected Democratic activist in Palm Beach County.

It's clear that Crist, while nominally a Republican, has prospered in recent weeks by moves designed to appeal to Democrats and independents. The chief one, of course, was his veto of an education bill that teachers in Florida saw as anathema. "That veto was tantamount to announcing his third-way candidacy," Ceaser said. It paid off. According to the latest Rasmussen poll, Crist's job-approval rating has jumped 11 points in the last month, and now stands at 56 percent—a positive number that is the envy of most other politicians in the time of virulent anti-incumbency.

Moderate in demeanor and speech, possessing a record or brokering compromises and supporting measures without regard to ideology or party, Crist is the kind of third-way candidate that is a rarity today—the kind politicians once used to claim to be, but now, in this strident time, don't even pretend to be.

Does he have a chance in the fall? Ceasar says the move is good news for the likely Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meek, an African-American from Miami. Meek, a winsome politician who has raised a lot of money and will have the full backing of the White House and the DNC, is trailing badly in most polls. "Anything that shakes up the race helps Meek," Ceasar says. By dividing the GOP vote, Crist may give Meek a boost. But the Rasmussen poll shows that Crist has considerable reach among Democrats and independents.

Roughly speaking, the three-way race is going to take place in the three states-within-a-state of Florida. Meek's base is South Florida and Rubio's is Miami, although Rubio is from South Florida he runs best in North Florida so far. That makes the battleground where it always is—the corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg across the state to Lakeland, Orlando, and Daytona Beach. That's Crist's home territory, and that is where he would have to pull off what would have to be regarded as a major coup: a sitting governor running as an outsider.