Crist's Florida Senate Race: Saved by the Democrats?

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Florida Governor Charlie Crist

Florida pundits are used to unpredictable election battles, but these days they are joking that they need braces for the whiplash they've suffered in trying to keep up with Governor Charlie Crist's dashes from one end of the political spectrum to the other. After bolting the increasingly conservative Republican Party to run as an independent for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat in November, Crist is not surprisingly courting Democratic voters. Critics say it's all too cynically apparent in his latest moves as governor, from the veto of a pro-life abortion bill (while removing his campaign website's pro-life page) to his willingness to consider easing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba that he'd previously backed.

Crist rejects that notion, telling TIME that it's simply the "pragmatic, non-ideological politics I've always embraced." But cynical or not, it seems to have revived his chances of keeping endangered moderates like himself viable. A Quinnipiac University poll this month has Crist ahead of his GOP opponent, former Florida house speaker Marco Rubio, 37% to 33%, while a Florida chamber of commerce survey shows him stretching that lead, 42% to 31%, with the leading Democratic candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek, at 14%. This comes just two months after Crist — his bid for the Republican Party's Senate nomination derailed by conservatives who were furious at his centrist, bipartisan style — was all but written off.

Part of Crist's comeback can be explained by the governor's visibility during the Gulf oil spill (the sort of crisis-leadership opportunity that pundits, no slouches at cynicism themselves, said Crist lacked during his GOP Senate primary run). But you can't discount the notion that Crist is also surging because Democrats, Florida's largest bloc of registered voters, see him on approach to his likely final destination, the Democratic Party. In the Quinnipiac poll, Crist snares 37% of Democrats in a three-way race with Rubio and Meek, while Meek gets 44%. Democrats, after all, are what the Republican base today derisively calls moderate Republicans. Crist claims that "caucusing with the people of my state is more important than caucusing with a party," but if he gets to the Senate, he'll eventually have to go blue or red — if only to win re-election in 2016 — and his ties to the GOP are now severed. (The Florida Republican Party has even sold its framed photo of him on eBay.)

Florida Democrats, if not those in Washington, know that too. Many figure Crist is all but in their camp now anyway, and with polls indicating he's a better bet than Meek to defeat Rubio, they're shifting their support to him. Prominent Sunshine State Dems have been attending and even hosting fundraisers for Crist, whose campaign finances are a big question mark now that he no longer has party machinery behind him. "Charlie's already had sizable support among Democrats as governor," says Lance Block, a Tallahassee attorney who advised Al Gore's legal team during Florida's 2000 presidential recount but held a Crist fundraiser at his home this month. "I think it would be refreshing to have his kind of independence up in Washington."

Crist's new lead media consultant, Josh Isay of the New York consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker, is a leading Democratic strategist. But the campaign denies that Crist has made any decision to join the Democrats if he wins the Senate race. To the contrary, they insist that his poll power resides precisely in that independence — in the idea that he's rebuffing both parties, not that he's simply trading one for the other. Florida has one of the nation's largest independent blocs — a fifth of its electorate — and its elections are often decided in purple-centrist swaths like the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando. What's more, while he's charming liberal constituencies like teachers' unions (he recently vetoed a GOP-sponsored bill that would have eliminated teacher tenure in Florida), Crist has to be careful not to alienate his own base; if he really has one, it's moderate, "party of Abraham Lincoln" Republicans like he was, many more of whom exist in Florida than this year's Tea Party–dominated GOP primary scene would suggest.

The wild card in this Charlie-and-the-Democrats scenario is Meek, who hopes to be the first African-American Senator from the South since Reconstruction. Amid all the national focus on Crist's Republican divorce, the popular four-term Congressman's campaign has had trouble gaining traction beyond his South Florida base. He's facing a surprisingly strong challenge in the Democratic primary from controversial real estate billionaire Jeff Greene, who made his fortune using credit-default swaps to bet against the U.S. housing market. Despite that unsavory résumé, the Quinnipiac poll has Greene, who built instant name recognition by spending some $5 million on television ads in just the past two months, in a statistical tie with Meek for the Aug. 24 vote.

Meek supporters insist he'll prevail in August, and that afterward his own name recognition will be more than enough to bring wandering Florida Democrats back into the party fold. "They'll realize that Kendrick gets it right on all the issues Democrats care about, from women's issues to middle-class family support, which they won't be able to say about any other candidate," says campaign manager Abe Dyk. But if Meek somehow is defeated by Greene — whose best man at his wedding was boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson, and who once had convicted Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss as a housemate — Crist can probably expect a windfall of Democratic voters, especially women and African Americans.

Crist, in fact, won almost 20% of the black vote in the 2006 gubernatorial election, more than any Florida Republican has ever gotten. That was largely due to the kind of "big tent," across-the-aisle politics for which Florida Republicans have rejected Crist — but for which a lot of Florida Democrats now seem willing to back him.