Charlie Crist To Run For Senate As Independent Florida's governor, a mainstay of state GOP politics since the 1980s, is expected to announce Thursday that he'll seek election to the U.S. Senate as an independent in the general election. He had fallen behind his primary opponent, conservative Marco Rubio, and the move would immediately scramble the race.
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Charlie Crist To Run For Senate As Independent

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Charlie Crist To Run For Senate As Independent

Charlie Crist To Run For Senate As Independent

Charlie Crist To Run For Senate As Independent

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist speaks to students and teachers April 23 during a visit to the McFatter Technical Center in Davie, Fla. Crist is expected to announce Thursday whether he'll abandon his bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and instead run as an independent. Lynne Sladky/AP hide caption

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Lynne Sladky/AP

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist speaks to students and teachers April 23 during a visit to the McFatter Technical Center in Davie, Fla. Crist is expected to announce Thursday whether he'll abandon his bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and instead run as an independent.

Lynne Sladky/AP

Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to announce Thursday that he's dropping out of the GOP primary and running for the U.S. Senate as an independent.

He has been a mainstay of state Republican politics since the 1980s, when he served as an aide to former Sen. Connie Mack. He has been a state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor. Thursday's announcement means he apparently thinks getting to his next office -- in the U.S. Senate -- requires leaving his political party behind.

As his conservative opponent, former statehouse speaker Marco Rubio, built a commanding lead in the polls in recent weeks, Crist has publicly pondered his options. He seemed to be enjoying the attention as anticipation mounted and reporters had one pressing question: Is he dropping his party affiliation? He wouldn't tell journalists, but he has told close friends and supporters, who say he'll make the announcement at a campaign event Thursday in St. Petersburg.

The decision to run in the general election instead of the GOP primary immediately scrambles the race. Suddenly, the primaries no longer matter. Both Rubio and the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, appear to have those contests sewn up.

Rubio's Message 'Isn't Going To Change'

The general election campaign may have begun, Rubio says, but don't expect to see him begin moderating his conservative message.

"I think my positions are mainstream American positions that talk about limited government, the free enterprise system, how America is the strongest country in the world," Rubio says. "That's what I ran on, that's what I'm campaigning on, that message isn't going to change. Who I am and why I'm running isn't going to change based on the political calculus."

For Crist, the political calculus has become pretty clear in recent weeks. Polls show him well behind Rubio in a two-man Republican primary. But in a three-way race between Rubio and Meek in the general election, he's competitive.

Analysts say if anyone could pull off a successful independent bid, it might be Crist -- a moderate with a populist streak who has consistently reached across party lines. But it will be difficult.

Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who directed President Obama's campaign in Florida, has crunched the numbers. "This year, Crist is going to have to be getting a good chunk -- 25 to 30 percent -- of both parties in a year when both parties are going to have very good nominees," Schale says. "So, I'm not saying it's impossible. I think quite honestly he has a better shot as an independent. But that shot might be from 1 percent if he stays in the primary to 25 to 30 percent if he switches over."

Shuffling Republican Fundraising, Endorsements

Another challenge for Crist will be money. He has long been a prodigious fundraiser and is thought to have about $10 million on hand. So far, despite pressure from the Republican Party to cut ties, some of Crist's longtime donors and fundraisers have indicated they'll stand by him.

But the pressure will continue to mount. The Washington-based group Club for Growth is planning to contact Crist's donors and encourage them to ask for their money back.

"A lot of the money that flowed into his campaign was really front-runner money --money that was going to the winner," says Club for Growth spokesman Michael Connolly. "So we think there's going to be a lot of flexibility between that money and Gov. Crist personally."

As Crist made it clear he was considering whether to remain in the primary or run as an independent, a slew of Republicans -- in Florida and nationally -- withdrew their endorsements and threw their support to Rubio.

The state GOP even sent a memo to elected Republicans telling them that, under party rules, they are required to pull their endorsements from Crist and request the return of any contributions to his campaign.

Asked about losing endorsements, Crist was philosophical: "We live in America. And in this country, people have the right and the opportunity to do what they believe in their heart is right. And I would encourage every American to do exactly that every day."