| ST. PETERSBURG, Florida
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida Florida Governor Charlie Crist announced an independent bid for the U.S. Senate on Thursday, breaking ranks with his Republican Party and setting the stage for a close race in the battleground state.
The 53-year-old Crist announced his widely expected nonaffiliated Senate bid at a rally in a park in his hometown, St. Petersburg.
Accused by conservative Republicans of being too moderate, although he has been a party fixture in the state capital, Tallahassee, for more than 15 years, the first-term governor has lagged far behind conservative rival Marco Rubio in the race for the Republican nomination.
"My decision to run for the United States Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me," Crist, accompanied by his family, told some 250 cheering supporters.
"I can confirm what most Floridians already know; our political system is broken," Crist said.
Rubio, 38, a former state House speaker, has become a darling of Republican Party hard-liners and mostly conservative Tea Party activists, whose noisy militancy is shaking up the party establishment.
While pundits have said Crist had little choice but to run as an unconventional "people's candidate," he struggled until the last minute with the decision to run as an independent, said Scott Peelen, who was Crist's Central Florida finance chairman during the 2006 governor's race.
"I spoke to the governor last night and he wasn't officially saying, 'I'm going to do this,'" Peelen, a longtime Crist supporter, quoted the governor as saying late on Wednesday.
Crist had enjoyed wide support in the fourth most populous U.S. state and was once seen as a potential running mate to defeated 2008 Republican presidential contender John McCain. But a recent opinion poll showed Crist more than 20 points behind Rubio in the Republican primary race.
HARD-FOUGHT CAMPAIGN AHEAD
By running independently, analysts said Crist was setting the stage for a hard-fought campaign in an electoral swing state known for turbulent politics.
The Senate race is already seen by some as part of a broader clash between arch-conservatives and moderates for control of the Republican Party, triggered by its defeat in the 2008 election that made Democrat Barack Obama president.
A recent opinion poll showed the Florida governor could narrowly win a three-way race pitting him against Rubio and the Democratic Party front-runner, Representative Kendrick Meek.
"In a three-way race in which you only need a plurality to win, it opens it (the race) up completely," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"If Crist can run down the middle and pick up moderate Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans put off by Marco Rubio's Tea Party roots, he has a chance," Jillson said.
Democrat Meek said the latest development put him in a "commanding position" to win the Senate race, as the state reels from the U.S. mortgage foreclosure crisis and high unemployment.
"Our two Republican opponents are architects of Florida's failed economy, both favor more tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate special interests as their only economic proposal," Meek said in a statement.
Although Crist said he was entering "uncharted territory" with his independent campaign, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman won re-election in 2006 as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to a rival who challenged his support of the Iraq war.
(Writing and additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Peter Cooney)