Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the independent candidate for Senate, says he loves Democrats and Republicans. But they aren't loving him back.
Who Crist is looms as a major question the former Republican hasn't answered to the satisfaction of the voters of each party he needs to draw to win. Once so wildly popular he earned praise from Democrats and was considered a GOP vice presidential prospect, Crist sometimes leaves the answer vague.
"I love Democrats!" he exclaimed at a St. Augustine seniors center after a woman told him she was a Democrat who planned to vote for him. But then he added, "And Republicans. And independents."
The feeling is apparently not mutual a month before the Nov. 2 election. Crist has lost his GOP base, loathed by some of the very Republicans who backed his bid for Senate under their banner. So his best hope is playing both offense and the defense -- drawing support from Democratic and independent voters even as he shields himself from attacks on all sides.
Win or lose, Crist is out as governor and the race to replace him is more or less a dead heat. Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink could be one of the bright spots for Democrats in a year in which Republicans are surging around the country. She's in a tight race with former Columbia/HCA CEO Rick Scott.
Sink has cast herself as an agent of change after 12 years of Republican governors, including former Gov. Jeb Bush.
But the political story this year is as much about the fall of giants as the rise of newcomers, and the Florida Senate race features both narratives.
Crist is at the center of the drama.
Republican nominee Marco Rubio calls him a political opportunist who will say and do anything to get votes. Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek is running a television ad that uses video of Crist praising Republican leaders and boasting about his conservative credentials.
Crist acknowledges his road is harder.
"When you're running as a party nominee, you've got that party infrastructure all over the state, you've got a host of volunteers, contributors that ordinarily would continue to kick in after the nomination is secure. I don't have that as an independent. It's just me and the people. They've been very kind to me in the past and I hope they will again," Crist said.
Being governor has helped.
To siphon Democrats from Meek, Crist moved to the left on some issues -- he vetoed a bill that was a top priority for anti-abortion Republicans and says he won't enforce the state's ban on gay adoption.
He also vetoed a GOP-backed bill that would have stripped tenure from new teachers, a move that has endeared him to a group that mostly backs Democrats.
The strategy has worked to a degree -- some polls show him with more Democratic support than Meek -- but not enough to overcome Rubio in polls, where he is getting almost all the Republican support and staying right behind Crist among independents. Meek lags behind both candidates and some Democrats are backing Crist partly because they don't think their nominee can win.
"I am scared to death to have Marco Rubio as our next senator. He is too far to the right," said state Rep. Yolly Roberson, who lost a primary election to replace Meek in Congress. "I have to face reality. I am a Democrat to the core, but also I'm not going to vote for someone who I know is not going to win and lose the chance of electing the better between Marco and Charlie."
Meek has responded by reminding voters about Crist's recent past. He's airing a television ad featuring several clips of Crist praising former Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother, former President George W. Bush, as well as Sarah Palin. It shows Crist saying, "It's important for people to understand who the true conservative is in this race. And it's Charlie Crist."
Another clip shows Crist saying, "I'm a pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax Republican."
"He and Marco Rubio see eye-to-eye on about 90 percent of Senate issues," Meek said. "Supporting him is supporting Marco Rubio in my book. They both graduated from the same college of conservatism."
Rubio says Crist is not a conservative.
"He's figuring out how he can become basically the Democratic nominee, so he wakes up every day and tries to figure out what position he needs to take to try to erode Democratic support away from Kendrick Meek," said Rubio, a darling of the tea party movement and a former state House Speaker.
Crist said he is conservative on some issues, like taxes and spending, but doesn't always agree with Republicans on social issues like abortion, gay rights, embryonic stem cell research and more. It's a mix he said neither Rubio nor Meek can claim.
"Charlie Crist is a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, a live-and-let-live kind of guy on social issues and tolerant and somebody who wants to look out for the taxpayers' money," Crist said. "If they want just common sense, for a change, they have that opportunity. If they want to be stuck with partisan rhetoric, they can vote for Congressman Meek or Speaker Rubio."
Crist leaves the governor's office whatever the results of his own Senate campaign. Running to replace him, Sink and Scott are in what amounts to a dead heat.
During the primary, Sink sat back and watched the GOP elite criticize Scott for running the Columbia/HCA hospital chain when it committed Medicare fraud, resulting in a $1.7 billion settlement, the largest ever. Even Scott's primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, is refusing to endorse him, saying Scott has questionable character.
While most in the GOP establishment are now backing Scott, damage has been done. His negative ratings rose as McCollum repeatedly said he ripped off the government, the elderly and the poor.
"We must remember that 53 percent of the Republicans who voted in the primary did not support Rick Scott," said Sink, a former president of Bank of America's Florida operations. "They have serious questions about Rick Scott, about his honesty, his integrity, where he came from."
Scott has been running commercials painting Sink as a liberal and linking her to Obama. One, using an ominous background, shows the president telling Florida Democrats they need to work for her election. Another links her to a series of tax and fee increases approved by the cabinet.