* Crist faulted by some Republicans as ‘moderate’
* Decision seen as barometer ahead of elections
* Crist angered party by welcoming Obama stimulus plan (Adds comment by Republican National Committee chairman)
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, April 28 (Reuters) - Florida Governor Charlie Crist is poised to announce he will run as an independent for the U.S. Senate in the November congressional elections, in a race that spotlights the ideological rift in the Republican Party.
U.S. media reports said Crist, 53, elected as a Republican governor in 2006, would announce his nonaffiliated Senate bid on Thursday. It was a widely anticipated move because he is far behind rival Marco Rubio in the race for the Republican nomination.
The battle in Florida, a U.S. electoral swing state, is being followed closely for its possible impact on the congressional elections. Crist is under fire from critics within the Republican Party who accuse him of being too moderate.
Crist’s U.S. Senate campaign said he would hold a “candidate qualifying event” on Thursday at 5 p.m (2100 GMT) in St. Petersburg, where he lives. He was expected to make his decision public then.
The St. Petersburg Times and Fox News reported on Wednesday in blogs on their websites that Crist was telling financial backers and allies he would break with the Republicans for the Senate race. The Orlando Sentinel reported the same on its website. The primary is set for Aug. 24.
“So the word is out: Gov. Charlie Crist is telling key financial backers that he’s running for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation,” Adam Smith, political editor of the St. Petersburg Times, wrote in his blog.
Analysts said Crist’s decision to run as an independent could have been influenced by a recent opinion poll showing the governor could win a three-way race in November among him, Rubio and the Democratic Party front-runner, Representative Kendrick Meek.
Crist, who 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, has found himself abandoned by prominent members of his party. A recent opinion poll showed Crist more than 20 points behind Rubio in the Republican primary race.
A spokesperson in Crist’s campaign office declined to comment.
‘THAT‘S HIS DECISION’
The Orlando Sentinel, which cited two sources close to Crist without identifying them, said he would portray himself as a candidate more interested in serving “the people” than partisan politics.
It said he would begin campaigning as an independent almost immediately with a fund-raising event.
Many see the governor’s political fortunes as a barometer of the clash for the soul of the Republican Party between conservative purists and pragmatic moderates, triggered by the party’s defeat in the 2008 election that made Democrat Barack Obama president.
Reacting to the reports that Crist would run as an independent, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said he did not want the governor to leave the party.
“But that’s his decision to make. My responsibility is to make sure the Republican wins the seat, and that’s what we’re going to be committed to doing,” Steele told CNN.
“If Crist is not in the primary any longer, then we know who the nominee will be, that’ll be Marco Rubio, and, guess what? There will be no Senator Crist!” he added.
Rubio, 38, a son of Cuban immigrants and a former state House speaker, has become a darling of the Republican Party’s conservative wing and of Tea Party activists, whose noisy militancy is shaking up the party establishment.
Crist angered his party this month by vetoing a bill passed by the Republican-led Legislature to eliminate teacher tenure and link teachers’ pay to improvements in student test scores.
Crist said the measure went too far in taking away teacher protections that constituents overwhelmingly wanted to keep.
The governor had drawn suspicion and criticism from within his party since early last year, when he welcomed President Obama’s economic stimulus package, saying it could help his cash-strapped state.
The governor also hugged Obama during a presidential visit to Florida, leading to scornful accusations he was a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only). (Additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney)