Politics & Policy

Charlie Crist’s Dropout Debacle

For about four hours Thursday night, conservatives in Florida — and indeed, nationwide — held their breath. At 5:50 p.m., Politico posted a story claiming that former President Bill Clinton had urged Kendrick Meek, the lagging Democrat in the state’s three-person Senate race, to drop out. The story claimed Meek had, at one point, agreed and had even set a tentative date to endorse independent Charlie Crist.

The latest poll showed Republican star Marco Rubio leading Crist by seven points in a 42-35 split, with Meek picking up 15 percent. Such a move, then, could potentially have upset the balance in what the GOP sees as a crucial race.

At this point, though, Meek wasn’t going to drop out. The real danger was to his credibility. If Clinton had indeed urged Meek to quit, the leak could have given rank-and-file Democrats a sense of permission to buck the party line and vote for Crist — one last-ditch effort to stop Rubio.

But that’s not what happened.

In a press conference at 9:30 p.m., Meek said he had discussed the matter with Clinton but vehemently denied that he was urged to drop out or that any agreement was struck. Clinton has followed suit. Then the New York Times reported that it was Crist who had initiated the discussions through a Clinton adviser. And now multiple media have reported that Crist has privately decided to caucus with the Democrats if elected, despite his many promises throughout the campaign to caucus “with the people of Florida.”

Now many speculate that Crist was behind the leak all along. One Democratic strategist told Battle ‘10 that Crist has been caught, “with his hand in the cookie jar.”

“It’s clear that he’s engineered this, it’s clear that he’s been pushing this. It’s clear that, basically, that this is all straight from Charlie Crist,” he said. “Floridians can see right through it.”

But if the media firestorm was indeed Crist’s last-minute ploy for Democratic voters, it hasn’t worked out as planned.

“The great irony of all this is that it was Charlie Crist himself who initiated this entire series of events, it was most likely the Crist people who leaked the story, and when the dust settles, it’s going to be Charlie Crist who sustains the most damage from it,” Todd Harris, a Rubio strategist, told Battle ‘10.

Dave Hoffman, spokesman for Meek, told Battle ‘10 that the campaign has seen a substantial outpouring of support.

“We’re getting a ton of calls. There’s been a surge of traffic on our website, and donations are coming in,” Hoffman said.

That the story didn’t do more damage is likely due, in part, to the speed with which the campaign and the media dissected it, and how quickly the storyline backfired into one of intrigue and manipulation.

“The shelf life of that original story — Clinton asking Meek to get out — was only about 3 or 4 hours, from late yesterday evening up until Kendrick held his press conference,” Harris said. “And what have we discovered in the meantime? We discovered that Charlie had cut a deal saying he would caucus with the Democrats.”

Some of the details still don’t line up. Clinton’s denial seems to contradict an on-the-record account given by his spokesman. Crist claimed he had spoken to “several” people at the White House about the idea, but he would not say who. One source said Crist’s plan to caucus with Democrats was part of a deal, while another said it was an independent decision.

But perception is everything, and Crist is certainly losing that. The deal — even if true — seems to fly in the face of the image Crist has cultivated for the past six months and staked his candidacy on: that he’s an alternative to the political games played by the left and right.

“I think this is going to fire up some people,” Hoffman said.

A hard look at the polling data shows that Crist would still have had a tough road, even if Meek had decided to drop out. Approximately one-third of probable voters have already cast ballots, and it’s arguable how much of the true-blue Democratic base could have stomached voting for Crist.

With Meek running strong, a Rubio victory looks even more likely. Mason-Dixon released a poll Friday showing Rubio with a commanding lead of 17 points, beating Crist and Meek 45-28-21. “There is simply no mathematical formula by which Crist or Meek can approach Rubio’s 45 percent support level,” the pollster wrote.

But in politics, there’s no such thing as a sure thing, and regardless of the spread, Rubio will sprint through the finish line.

“Marco’s campaigning non-stop until the election,” Harris said.

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