Crist announces his intent to run as independent

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Now it’s official.

It only took a few months and a push downhill from Marco Rubio, but Charlie Crist has finally announced he will run as an independent in the Florida Senate race.

“My decision to run as a says more about our nation or our state than it does about me,” said the governor at a campaign event in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Crist spoke of the “broken system” that is American politics. “For me,” said Crist, “public service is more about putting the needs of the public for the needs of myself.”

The announcement comes a little more than a week after a Quinnipiac University poll showed Rubio whooping Crist by 23 points in the GOP race. In that same survey, Crist is projected wins the three-way race against Rubio and Demoocrat Kendrick Meek by the skin of his teeth.

With just a year into his governorship, Crist had high approval ratings and was being touted as a potential Vice President nominee. Sen. John Cornyn once called him “the best candidate” for the Senate seat.

But polls had been ringing in Crist’s ears for months and they only got louder. Crist first denied reports that he would jump ship and run as an independent, all the while losing money and Republican support.

Meanwhile, Rubio has proven nearly untouchable, even when faced with federal investigations. Crist, on the other hand, took a beating recently when he vetoed the teacher-pay tenure bill.

In an inteview airing tonight on ABC, Rubio, dismisses any idea that Crist’s decision has anything to do with principles:

“That’s not what this is about at all … In fact this has nothing to do with ideas or principles or ideology; it’s about, quite frankly, political convenience. It’s about someone who wants to continue his career in politics and doesn’t believe he can do that this year within the Republican Party.”

So how can Crist win as an independent? The Daily Caller’s Mike Riggs and Pat McMahon offered some tips for the rebel Republican last week.

“The odds are like a million percent better than if he were running as a Republican,” said Brett Doster, a Republican political operative who managed Tom Gallagher’s gubernatorial campaign against Crist in 2006. “Now he’s free without any loyalty to any organization, party or ideology to just come out and be an absolute and total populist.”

Crist said after the announcement that he will change his voter registration from Republican to “no party affiliation.” He claimed the middle ground during his short speech, saying politics had become too divisive.

“I haven’t supported an idea because it’s a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. I support ideas because I think they’re good ideas for the people,” he said.

Leaving the Republicans means it will be tougher for Crist to raise money, he’ll lose nearly all his campaign staff and he won’t have the advantage of a party infrastructure for resources like voter lists and volunteers. The party that helped propel him to power will now do anything to defeat him.

The main things Crist will be relying on are his charisma and likable personality. He has long had a reputation of trying to be all things to all people, and now he’ll see if that’s enough to put him ahead of Rubio and Meek.

Three confidants had said Wednesday that Crist told them he will run an independent campaign, but the governor denied that and did not reveal his plans until Thursday’s announcement.

Just a year ago, it seemed Crist was the man to beat for the GOP nomination to run for the Senate seat Republican Mel Martinez was leaving early. But he has seen his poll numbers nose-dive as conservatives switched their support to Rubio, many driven away in part by Crist’s support for Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. Rubio has frequently reminded voters that Crist hugged the president at a Florida appearance to support the bill.

Rubio grinned widely at a campaign stop in Coral Gables on Thursday when asked about Crist.

“When I got in this race I knew I was running against people that supported the Obama agenda,” he said. “I just didn’t realize I would have to run against both of them at the same time.”

Other Republicans were making it clear that if Crist abandons the party, they will abandon him — for good.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thursday that Crist’s future political aspirations would be “irreparably damaged” by an independent run. The committee plans to reverse itself Thursday and back Rubio for the general election.

“Once we get by this drama today, it’ll be a general election campaign,” Cornyn said, predicting: “People will begin focusing on Kendrick Meek.”

Cornyn said he expects GOP donors to ask to have their contributions refunded and added: “I will request the money that I’ve donated to his campaign from my leadership PAC back.” Cornyn gave Crist $10,000 when he recruited the governor to run for the Senate in 2009.

Crist had $7 million in his campaign account at the end of last month and doesn’t need to spend it introducing himself to voters because he is so well-known. Rubio had about half that amount, but his fundraising has increased tremendously and he can now ask Crist supporters for help.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s Florida campaign, said he wouldn’t count Crist out as an independent candidate.

“I think all three of them have a shot. I’ve been calling it a jump ball,” Schale said.

Crist faces the problem of instantly losing his campaign structure in 67 counties, his turnout operation and his volunteers.

“He doesn’t have any of that. It’s working for somebody else — his opponent — and that’s a tremendous obstacle,” said David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist.

Still, he said it’s uncertain who will benefit from the three-way race: “It’s like trying to predict the winner of the World Series right now based on the first month of the season.”