Updated at 9:31 a.m. on April 28.
As we await final word on the future of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R?), consider this glaring piece of irony: Crist's decision on whether to bolt the GOP and run for Senate as an independent is driven in part by polls suggesting that his prospects brighten dramatically in a three-way vote. But the election is still more than six months away. And six months ago, similar polls showed Crist sporting supposedly "insurmountable" leads in the GOP primary over some nobody named Marco Rubio.
Is anyone reminding Crist of that reality today? Maybe so, which would explain why we've been treated this week to a fresh round of pre-bituaries of Crist's political career.
Crist got some indirect encouragement to bolt his party this week from Joe Lieberman.
Still, Crist's decision, which he plans to make public Thursday, will continue to be a huge political story, riddled with contradictions, that reaches far beyond the Senate race and his decision to hug President Obama so many months ago. Crist is the unlikely victim of both a national wave of anti-establishment sentiment, especially within the GOP, and Florida voters' narrowly targeted distrust of his judgment. His decision is a personal quandary that affects him in this race and beyond, but it also has far-reaching implications this fall for races up and down the state's ballot.
Crist's prospects do improve in a three-way race, according to recent polls. But the extent of that improvement is debatable. A Quinnipiac poll released April 15 showed Crist trailing Rubio by 23 points in the GOP primary. Bolstered by a big advantage among independent voters, however, Crist edged out Rubio in a three-way race. Still, there are warning signs for Crist: Rubio remained competitive in that three-way contest that included Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, in part because of a 2-1 advantage among Republican voters, who appear more likely than independents to head to the polls this fall. Crist had a 5-1 edge over Rubio among Democrats, whose enthusiasm levels are relatively low.
Adding to the confusion: A Rasmussen poll released last week showed that, in a hypothetical three-way contest, Rubio would still prevail over Crist and Meek.
Crist got some indirect encouragement to bolt his party this week from someone he's being widely compared with these days. "When I lost the Democratic primary for re-election in 2006 in Connecticut, it was the most painful, most disappointing moment of my political career," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I/D-Conn., on CNN when asked about Crist's predicament. "Yet as I look back to it -- and it sure didn't feel like that then -- I feel like I was done a favor."
The comparisons are limited. (Lieberman, for example, had a national fundraising base in 2006 and ran as the de facto nominee of the other major party. Crist can expect to enjoy neither asset.) But one similarity is already apparent: If he does prevail in November, Crist may caucus with Republicans but is unlikely to be the loyalist he once claimed to be. In vetoing a GOP-backed schools bill earlier this month, Crist compared GOP tactics to advance the legislation to those congressional Democrats used to pass health reform -- by "jamming something down their throats."
Last week, in an interview with WFTS-TV, Crist even stopped trying to defend, explain or apologize for hugging Obama last year. "Absolutely not," he said, when asked (again) if he regretted the move. "I embrace it, no pun intended."
There is, however, one Florida Republican who should be sanguine about Crist's move: The candidate running to succeed him as governor. A Crist independent bid would likely generate a higher turnout this fall for the campaigns of both Rubio and Crist, and most of those voters would likely be inclined to back state Attorney General Bill McCollum (R) for governor.
If Crist quits the Senate race completely, which seems unlikely, look for turnout to decline among moderates and independents, who are less likely to show up in November to choose between only Rubio and Meek, especially if McCollum is leading state CFO Alex Sink (D) by a comfortable margin.
Meanwhile, a Crist independent bid would force Rubio and Meek to court their core party bases even more aggressively, meaning the Senate campaign could become one of the most polarizing races in recent memory.