TALLAHASSEE — The very thing that once made Gov. Charlie Crist the clear Republican choice to run for U.S. Senate is also what will perhaps make it inevitable that he will eventually buck the party to run as an independent: his embrace — literally and figuratively — of bipartisanship.
A year after it seemed he was the man to beat for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate and a virtual shoo-in in the general election, Crist has seen his poll numbers nose-dive and speculation has run rampant about his chances of surviving a primary against tea-party favorite Marco Rubio, the state's former House speaker. The 53-year-old governor has scheduled a Thursday evening event in his hometown where he will reveal his plans, though three confidants have said he's already decided to abandon his long-shot GOP primary bid and run as an independent.
From the day he took office, Crist set out on a course to show he was no Jeb Bush, his conservative Republican predecessor who never wavered from the far-right's ideals.
The Republican establishment liked Crist's moderate credentials a year ago when it backed him for the seat being vacated early by Republican Mel Martinez. Even as conservatives slammed him, Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona joined National Republican Senate Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas in singing his praises.
But as Rubio gained traction with support from conservatives and tea party activists, Crist's fortunes plummeted along with his popularity.
Running as an independent may be his only chance to remain in the race. Recent polls have shown Crist losing an Aug. 24 GOP primary badly to the 38-year-old Rubio. It's a too-close-to-call three-way race in the general election among Crist, Rubio and likely Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Still, such a decision comes with some peril. He will lose his fundraising base, and likely most of his staff who won't want to risk their own political careers with other Republican politicians by staying with him. Crist has $7 million in the bank, almost double Rubio's total. Several GOP donors have said they will demand their money returned if Crist runs as an independent, but he is not legally obligated to comply.
That's all part of the political calculation he'll need to tackle in the months ahead.
"The only way that he can really position himself is to be consistent with his message, and his philosophy over the years has been to rise above party. In a three-person race that's what he has to do," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.
For Florida's political observers, it seems a natural evolution for a man known as "The People's Governor," a man who has set a mostly bipartisan agenda designed to please as many people as possible and bristled at the idea of us-against-them politics between Democrats and Republicans.
Crist has consistently said that every move, every position is about the people, his constituents, and not ideology or party. As he has mulled over this latest decision, he's been calling friends asking for advice, but repeating that he hasn't made up his mind.
Asked how he would explain running without a party when he had said he was going to run as a Republican, he said Wednesday: "I don't know, number one, that I'm not, and number two, if I were to, I would say what I said the other day: Things change."
Crist, elected governor in 2006, has spent the past several years working closely with Democrats and embracing other causes not popular among conservatives.
Just two weeks ago, he alienated many powerful Republican and business interests by vetoing a measure that would have made it easier to fire teachers and linked their pay to student test scores. At the same time, he scored points with the influential teachers union and other traditionally Democratic constituents who won't have a say in August's GOP primary.
Sometimes, Crist has made symbolic moves that would rankle his Republican base, such as sitting with Democratic and Republican leaders at dinners held at the governor's mansion and introducing all with equal enthusiasm. He's also appointed Democrats to some key positions, including one to the state Supreme Court to the praise of abortion-rights and gay-rights groups.
More substantively, Crist sided with Democrats when he pushed to have voting rights for nonviolent felons automatically restored. He extended early voting hours during the 2008 presidential election even though the decision seemed to favor then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, whom Crist endorsed ahead of the Florida primary.
And then there is his now-infamous February 2009 appearance with President Obama in Fort Myers, when the men hugged before campaigning for passage of a $787 billion federal stimulus plan — one Republicans vehemently opposed. There's little doubt that if Crist runs as an independent, his campaign will tout the package as saving teacher and police jobs.
"It's been a radically different experience," said former Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican. "With Jeb Bush, we always knew where he stood."