Updated at 7:40 a.m. on October 29.
Former President Clinton unsuccessfully tried to talk Rep. Kendrick Meek into dropping out of the Florida Senate race against rising Republican star Marco Rubio and Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist, numerous Democratic sources tell National Journal.
Clinton’s move, which was first reported by Politico, was carried out with the awareness and unspoken approval of the Obama White House and Senate Democratic leaders who were hoping to pull the Florida race out of the loss column. According to Democrats familiar with the late-campaign intervention, the prevailing thought among Clinton and top party strategists was that Meek’s persistently low poll numbers – 15 percent in the most recent survey – were irreversible and the only way Crist could prevail was if Meek dropped out and endorsed the former Republican governor.
Clinton campaigned with Meek on October 19 and 20, and sources said there was an initial agreement from Meek to hold an endorsement rally with Crist and Clinton on October 25. (One Democratic source found it amazing Clinton would so directly interject himself into the behind-the-scenes and public machinations of the close-but-not-quite maneuver.) Last night, Meek's campaign denied that the candidate had ever considered dropping out of the race, or that Clinton asked him to do so.
"We talk about issues all the time, but to say that he asked me is totally false," Meek said in a press conference, according to the Associated Press.
Meek made the rounds on television this morning, telling Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and CBS that while he and Clinton did in fact discuss the race, he never agreed to dropping out.
"I don't have quitteritis," he said on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
Clinton, on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, would not answer specifics about his conversations with Meek but did say, "I said in the end, you know, he would have to do what he thought was right. He'd have to do what he felt right about."
Democrats said internal polling data showed that a Meek exit from the race would not dramatically harm gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink or other down-ballot Democrats. Two Democratic sources said it was understood that if Meek dropped out the Crist campaign would finance Meek's travel around the state in hopes that he, though no longer a candidate, would motivate his supporters, many of them in the African-American community, to turn out. Some Democrats remain skeptical this strategy would have worked but acknowledge that no better options remained.
A senior adviser to Sink said word of the Clinton gambit was unhelpful to Sink and the rest of the party's ticket in Florida at a time when Democrats are beginning to set in motion their get-out-the-vote drive. "It’s a distraction from the turnout we need right now," the Sink strategist said.
In the end, Meek changed his mind on dropping out. A driving force in that reversal was advice from his wife Leslie, two Democrats said. It is by no means clear that Meek’s departure would have galvanized African-American support for Crist.
"President Clinton’s actions to have Kendrick Meek withdraw from the campaign sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race – in the 11th hour – a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek."
The latest Quinnipiac survey, conducted October 18-24 with 784 likely voters, showed Rubio leading with 42 percent to Crist’s 35 percent and Meek’s 15 percent. The seven percent differential between Rubio and Crist was closer than the polling average, which showed Rubio leading Crist by an average of 10.8 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
Meek’s 15 percent in the Quinnipiac poll was his lowest recent showing, down from a consistent rating in the low 20s throughout October. Meek’s high-water mark -- of 24 percent -- came in a CNN/Time poll from September 2-7.
Lars Hafner, a former Democratic state legislator who is now president of the State College of Florida, believes the leak of this story is part of a calculated effort by Democrats to signal to wavering party members the only way to stop Rubio is by voting for Crist. With debates over, party leaders may have felt they needed a dramatic move make it a race with Rubio.
Rumors of Clinton’s missionary work began to circulate among party insiders when the ex-president visited St. Petersburg on Meek’s behalf last week. "The feeling was if there was anyone who could rationally talk him out of the race, it was Clinton," Hafner said.
Word that Clinton tried to get Meek to step aside in Crist’s favor "will have a little effect" on the race, Hafner said. But he’s not sure it will be enough for Crist to catch Rubio.
Without a dramatic shift in voter sentiment, something neither national nor Florida Democrats now anticipate, it appears Rubio is on his way to victory and a rapidly expanding national prominence with Crist destined to finish second and Meek a distant third.
One Democrat close to the Meek camp said today’s publicity casts Meek in a stronger and more politically resolute light, something that will not change the outcome of the election, but could put Meek in a better position later. In politics, such long-term calculations are about all that is left for a campaign running a distant third.
The far more important and immediate concern of Florida Democrats is boosting statewide turnout in the homestretch of the mid-term campaign.
Singer/song-writer Jimmy Buffett, a Florida institution and long-time ally of the party, is once again being called upon to tour the state to encourage Democrats to vote.
Florida Democratic sources tell National Journal that Sink’s campaign, panicked by what it considered an alarming advantage for Republicans in early vote totals so far, on Wednesday called Florida's senior Senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, to seek his help in bringing Buffett into the mix. Nelson then called former Senate colleague Bob Graham to reach out to Buffett. Graham has been personal friends with Buffett since the early 1980s and it was Graham’s relationship with Buffett that brought him into state Democratic politics when Graham was governor. Graham called Buffett Thursday and asked him to do as many events as possible on Monday, election eve. Buffett said his schedule prevented that, but he is considering some involvement in get-out-the-vote efforts this weekend, Democratic sources said.
Ben Terris contributed