Can Crist Win in Florida as an Independent?

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Florida Governor Charlie Crist, after announcing that he will make an independent bid for Florida's open Senate seat in St. Petersburg on April 29, 2010

A former college quarterback, Charlie Crist often speaks with the motivational tenor of gridiron pep talks. Over the weekend, after formally announcing that he will bolt the Republican Party and run as an independent for Florida's open Senate seat in the November election, the Sunshine State's governor did his best to maintain a heady sense of optimism about his new, solo undertaking. In a phone interview with TIME, Crist insisted that his candidacy "is about framing the future for our broken political system." But at times his voice betrayed a rare nervousness, like a quarterback who's holding the ball on a broken play and can't find an open receiver. "I'll definitely have to thread the needle this time," he admitted.

It would be understandable if Crist had private misgivings, considering the challenge he faces. Just a year ago, he was one of the Republican Party's hottest commodities, a shoo-in to win the Senate seat this year. But after months of being pilloried by the GOP's leadership and base for what they called his betrayal of core conservative values — and after seeing his 20-point lead in GOP primary polls plunge to a 20-point deficit — the more moderate Crist will now try to run an insurgent general-election campaign against his conservative Republican primary opponent, former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio, and the likely Democratic candidate, Representative Kendrick Meek.

There are some glimmers of daylight. The state does hold one of the nation's largest caches of independent voters — a fifth of the electorate — and its general elections are often decided in notoriously centrist pockets like the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando. Despite Crist's long odds, more Sunshine State voters might be with him than Republican (or Democratic) leaders would care to admit. Even before his party divorce last week, a Quinnipiac University poll gave the popular governor a slight lead over Rubio and Meek in a three-way race.

Crist's bet is that he can co-opt the Tea Party's frustration with U.S. politics and direct it at both the left and the right as a viable campaign strategy. So what does he have to do in order to, as he has pledged, save the American moderate from political extinction?

First, Crist has to convince skeptics that this really is about correcting a polarized and paralyzed political culture and not just about saving his political butt, as Republican leaders charged last week. He gets plaudits for being a pragmatic, postpartisan governor, but he also gets his share of jeers for naked ambition and opportunism. I reminded Crist that we didn't hear him complaining about a broken primary system in 2006, when he handily won the Republican nomination for governor; or in 2008, when he moved Florida's presidential primary up two months so he could play kingmaker; or last year, when he was burying Rubio in the polls and many Republicans cried foul after the national party peremptorily endorsed Crist for the Senate, which seemed to contradict his "listen to the people" ethos.

Crist argues that both parties have used the recession as an excuse to let their extremists loose, with the Republicans bowing to the conservative Tea Party movement and Democrats surrendering to liberal, Big Government impulses. "The party system is two big clubs, which is fine," he says. "But the party primary system has now been hijacked by less tolerant clubs within the clubs, and their power has brought us nothing but this 24/7 cycle of vicious bickering." The Republican base, he adds, "seems remarkably frustrated, amazingly angry" at anyone not in lockstep with its hard-right thinking. "That's not a good place to be," he says.

After concluding it wasn't the place for him anymore, Crist says he went to his hometown, St. Petersburg, over Easter weekend. While cruising on his boat and talking with locals, he says, he decided to go indie. A phone chat later with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman — a Democrat who won re-election as an independent in 2006 when primary voters decided he was too conservative for their tastes — confirmed for Crist that "caucusing with the people of your state is more important than caucusing with a party."

That may not be the most realistic philosophy. But on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, Crist spoke from Pensacola, Fla., where he was monitoring the Gulf oil spill, and used the crisis as a handy backdrop for his independent positioning as a governor who is trying to protect his state from both Republican-backed oil corporations and a Democratic Administration that some have argued has been slow off the mark to contain the disaster. Asked which party he'd caucus with in Washington if he were to win in November, Crist was noncommittal, saying he was open to voting for either a Republican or Democrat as Senate majority leader.

Yet before he can wrestle with that decision, Crist has to cobble together — and finance — a credible campaign infrastructure. Most of his top campaign aides declined to join his independent crusade, and it's unclear how much, if any, of his $10 million war chest he's obligated by law to return to donors who ask for it back. Crist is moving his campaign headquarters from Tallahassee to St. Petersburg, where he'll be able to recruit loyal talent more easily. But while his coffers are still bigger than Rubio's, the 38-year-old former speaker has proved to be an especially smart and energetic campaigner whose Republican-generated funds are certain to outstrip Crist's by the fall.

Crist does stand a decent chance of collecting cash from Florida's independents. But a recent Rasmussen survey offers him mixed news: while 54% of the nation's voters say they'll be more likely this year to give to individual candidates instead of parties — and only 18% say they'll give to parties — most nonaffiliated voters say they feel less inclined to give at all.

As a result, Crist has to cultivate sizable swaths of Florida's Republican and Democratic voters. He believes he can pull enough Republicans to his cause — "at least the ones who come out for general elections and prefer Florida common sense over Washington nonsense," he says. And those, he might add, who may well get fed up with their state party if recently announced federal probes into large-scale spending shenanigans by Florida GOP leaders — including Rubio and some of Crist's own allies — turn up serious sleaze. In addition, many Florida Republican veterans who back Crist believe his bipartisan style, like last month's veto of a GOP-championed teacher-merit-pay bill he deemed too draconian, will help him poach just enough Democratic voters to put him over the top.

At the same time, Crist can alienate both Rubio and Meek from their bases by forcing them to compete with him in the center. Up till now, says Florida GOP lobbyist Mac Stipanovich, "Charlie has struggled to get around Marco to the right. Now Marco will have to get around Charlie to the center."

Republican leaders may be having a field day charging Crist with opportunism, but Florida voters in the end aren't likely to overlook the GOP's own hypocrisy — lionizing Crist as the party's future one moment and then demonizing him when the political ground shifted the next. They also seem to forget that if John McCain in 2008 had followed Crist's more moderate counsel in Florida instead of the red-meat-conservative approach there — when Sarah Palin all but called Barack Obama a terrorist — McCain might not have lost the state.

"I think an awful lot of people in Florida still agree with me about that," says Crist, and it was one of the big reasons he decided he could win Florida without his party now. "I think, like me, they'll remember George Washington's warnings about the abuses of the party system," he says. Even so, threading the political needle will require an unusually talented field general.