Florida's Crist Leaving GOP To Run As Independent

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced Thursday that he is leaving the Republican Party to pursue a Senate seat as an independent. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Greg Allen, who is in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa BLOCK.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced today he is dropping out of the Republican primary and will run for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Crist made the much anticipated speech in his hometown of St. Petersburg in a park overlooking Tampa Bay. NPR's Greg Allen is there. And Greg, there's been a lot of rumor and speculation leading up to this announcement today. How did the governor explain his decision?

GREG ALLEN: Well, he didn't make a very long speech but a very strongly worded one. He said that the decision that he's making today is more about what's going on in the nation and in the state of Florida than it says about him. He says it's clear that the political system is broken, and that throughout his whole career, he's worked to support ideas that were good ideas. If they're Democratic ideas, if they're Republican ideas, he didn't care which party they came from, but that it's clear that he could no longer operate like that within Florida.

And in terms of why he's running as an independent, this is what he has to say about that.

Governor Charlie Crist (Florida): Now, I could have chosen to stay in the primary, but frankly, for me, it's your decision. It's not one club's decision or another, or even a club within that club. It is a decision too important. It is a decision for all the people of Florida to be able to make.

BLOCK: Now, Greg, the back story of this, though, is that Charlie Crist has been plummeting in the polls, facing a really stiff primary challenge from Marco Rubio.

ALLEN: That's right, Melissa. Marco Rubio is the former State House speaker here in Florida and very conservative. And he's been taking his conservative message throughout the state, won a lot of support from Tea Party movement folks and their supporters. He's been talking about the need for smaller government and also his total discontent with the Obama health care program. So he - Marco Rubio wants to go to Washington to fight the Obama agenda, he says repeatedly.

Charlie Crist is taking, of course, a more conciliatory tone. There, when he was talking the group that shouldn't be answering for the people of Florida, he's talking about the Republican Party. People in the Republican Party started turning away from Charlie Crist over the past year in large part because of his hug of President Obama in the event here in Florida and his support of the stimulus package, and that that's built - Marco Rubio has built a commanding lead and just show that Charlie could not win in the Republican primary.

BLOCK: So now, Greg, this sets up a three-way race in Florida. Does Charlie Crist, do you think, have a shot at winning the Senate seat as an independent?

ALLEN: Yes, it'll be very interesting, Melissa. He'll be facing not just Marco Rubio but also the likely democratic nominee Congressman Kendrick Meek. Now, for an independent to run in Florida, no one's ever won as a - senate as an independent in Florida.

In fact, the only time anyone's won as an independent down here was in 1916 and it was a governor, independent gubernatorial candidate. However, people tell me, if anyone can do it in the modern era, it's Charlie Crist. Rather a tough challenge to come up with the money and the organization, but he's the guy, he's built a lot of friends over 20 years in politics here down in Florida and so he might have a shot at doing it.

BLOCK: And the Republican Party has threatened Republican Party members who back Charlie Crist or support him.

ALLEN: That's right. There's a party rule here, any Republican Party official in Florida who gets elected to office signs a loyalty oath. And as part of that, the oath says that you must support the Republican candidate in the election even if there's an independent that you like. So the party's calling on all the elected officials to withdraw their endorsements from Crist, and many, of course, already have. And also, they're asking them to ask for their contributions back if they've made any monetary contributions to his campaign. And that's a call that's being made by the independent Club for Growth group out of -conservative group out of Washington, D.C., as well.

They say they're going to be sending out notices to anyone who's contributed to Charlie Crist, asking them to do the same thing, to ask for their money back.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg. Greg, thanks very much.

ALLEN: My pleasure.

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