Florida Gov. Charlie Crist abandoned the Republican Party, vowing to continue his struggling campaign for the United States Senate as an Independent candidate.
The move could save his political career. As a Republican, Crist was trailing his more conservative opponent, Marco Rubio, by 20 points in the party's primary but runs much closer in polls with a third-party candidate in November.
“I haven't supported an idea because it's a Republican idea or a Democratic idea,” Crist told supporters in St. Petersburg, Fla., as he explained his decision. “I support ideas I believe are good ideas for the people, and I have always found that is exactly what the people believe, too.”
Crist also cited the need for a “new tone” in Washington, but his decision was more likely based on his sliding poll numbers.
Crist told the Florida crowd that by skipping the primary, in which he would have likely lost to Rubio, “we go straight to November, it's your decision to make.”
In addition to Rubio, Crist will face Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democratic candidate.
Nationally and statewide in Florida, his former Republican supporters dropped their support and said his candidacy is now doomed.
“I think he comes in third,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents Florida's panhandle. Gaetz had been campaigning for Crist since he first ran for education commissioner a decade ago. He said Republicans statewide are “disappointed” about his decision.
“I would say that his campaign has been in a free fall for the last several months, and this is an act of political desperation,” Gaetz said.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans condemned the move. Even the Senate's most famous Independent, Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, who dropped the “D” from his name after losing his state's Democratic primary, refused to offer his endorsement.
“I wish him luck,” Lieberman said.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., called the move “the end of him and his career.”
Some political analysts believe Crist will find it impossible to raise money or hire staff now that he has dropped his affiliation with the Republican Party.
“His highest approval ratings will be on the day he announces, and he'll go downhill from there,” said Clemson political science professor J. David Woodard. “Unless something dramatic happens, this is over.”
But polling shows Crist may fare much better as an Independent candidate.
University of Tampa governmental affairs professor Scott Paine said Crist's poll numbers will improve now that he is an Independent candidate and can use the next six months to paint Rubio into a conservative corner.
“Marco Rubio is going to have to create the impression that, having worked so hard to prove that he is the conservative in the race, that he is not actually that conservative,” Paine said. “And that is not going to be easy. Florida is not that conservative. Florida supported Barack Obama two years ago.”