Crist's dilemma: Fight, bail or bolt

By Jonathan Martin & David Catanese

Facing a gaping deficit in the polls, a clock ticking ever closer to the filing deadline, and a rush to the exits by donors and onetime allies, the gilded political career of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is dangerously close to expiration.

One day after pulling his TV advertising and declaring that he was actively considering a third-party Senate bid, Crist now faces only disagreeable options: soldier on in a GOP Senate primary that he very likely cannot win, drop out in an attempt to salvage his future prospects or bolt the party to run as an independent.

Of the three alternatives, an independent bid might prove to be the most advantageous path to the Senate. But his top supporters and donors in Washington made clear Tuesday that they would yank their support if he left the Republican Party.

 The collective warning from Washington’s GOP establishment was one that Crist can’t afford to ignore as the April 30 filing deadline approaches. Statewide races in sprawling Florida, with its 10 media markets, are fought on the airwaves — which makes them expensive endeavors. And if Crist runs as an independent, his national fundraising could quickly dry up.

 “If he runs as an independent, I think the best day he has is the day he announces,” a longtime Crist adviser conceded. “The normal rules of gravity apply. How do you raise money?”

 This source, who has talked to Crist about his decision, said, “I told him that every Republican official is going to support [Republican Senate challenger Marco] Rubio.  And by telegraphing this, you’re making them jump.”

All of this has marked a harsh turnabout for Crist, a glad-handing pol’s pol whose future seemed limitless as recently as a year ago. On Tuesday, however, the very senators and longtime party insiders who rushed to crown him as the Republican Senate nominee last year — and gladly appeared by his side when he came to Washington to raise money — said without reservation that they’d abandon him if he bolted the party.

Unlike Sen. Joe Lieberman, who, thanks to his nearly two decades in Congress, was able to retain some party support even after he ran as an independent in 2006, Crist doesn’t have many personal relationships in Washington. And without the protective confines of party, in the nation’s capital, at least, the governor has been left to twist in the wind.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn, who leaped at the opportunity to recruit a popular fundraising dynamo last year and once embraced Crist’s candidacy, told POLITICO: “Well, I am still hoping [Crist] will either run as a Republican or he will decide to take a pass this time and run again.”

And if he doesn’t?

“I would never support it if he ran as an independent,” Cornyn said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for decades an influential figure in the national GOP who lent his support to Crist early last year, added, “My hope is that Gov. Crist will stay in the Republican primary or run at a later time if he chooses to get out of the race.”

But Alexander left no more room for doubt than Cornyn about his intentions.

“I’ll support the Republican nominee,” he told POLITICO.


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