Gulp: Crist 42, Rubio 31, Meek 14

Dude, I’m nervous.

A new Florida Chamber of Commerce poll suggests Charlie Crist may be widening his lead over Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the U.S. Senate race.

Where other recent polls showed Crist barely edging out Rubio, the June 9-13 survey of 607 likely voters by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Political Institute and Cherry Communications found 42 percent backing Crist, 31 percent Rubio and 14 percent Meek. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

How does a guy whose opportunism is quickly becoming the stuff of media legend manage to grow a lead, all while running a barebones organization and coping with massive desertions by fundraisers? Simple: A crisis fell in his lap.

The Gulf oil leak has yet to reach Florida’s shores in a major way, but it has already caused a sea change in the Sunshine State’s most prominent campaign. While Crist appears cool, composed, and in control—calling for tougher legislation to shut down offshore drilling—GOP wunderkind Rubio seems out of step with Florida’s populace, supporting a policy of continued offshore drilling that polling shows voters reject.

Standing among the suits, Crist is getting to play action hero. On Tuesday, he surveyed the shoreline in Pensacola Beach with President Obama. On Wednesday, he worked the phones, talking to fellow Gulf Coast governors and federal officials who are managing the Deepwater Horizon spill. Suddenly a whirl of activity, Crist has watched his popularity crest. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll had Crist, who trailed Rubio by 8 points in May, ahead anywhere from 4 to 7 points, depending on which Democrat eventually joins the pair in the race…

Since Crist lacks the support of a major party, his ability to raise campaign cash is seriously hampered—but the face time afforded by the environmental crisis is akin to free advertising.

Ever notice how he tends to end up right behind The One during speeches delivered in the gulf? Now you know why. Now, a question: Assuming Kendrick Meek wins the Democratic primary in late August — which is no sure thing, now that he’s got an eccentric moneybags candidate running against him — aren’t the Dems obliged to stick with him down the stretch even if he’s still hovering at around 20-25 percent? They’re betting, I assume, that a contested primary will help raise his name recognition and boost him into the low 30s, which will cost Crist dearly, but as NRO explains, Meek’s a weak candidate who’s underperformed thus far. If, heaven forbid, there’s some sort of setback in BP’s drilling of relief wells and it looks like the spill will drag on into fall, maybe the Dems will conclude that Meek has no chance of beating a Crist who’s on the news every day vis-a-vis BP and will encourage Meek to drop out before the primary. That would leave kooky, little-known Jeff Greene as the party nominee, a guy many of them would feel comfortable abandoning in order to back Crist. (There’s already been some talk of doing this, remember.) And suddenly, Crist would look very viable.

Another question: How does Rubio counter this possibility? I’m thinking maybe it’s time for him to start training his fire on Meek instead of Crist, which seems risky — why attack the also-ran instead of the guy in the lead? — but would have the virtue of boosting Meek’s name recognition, which would benefit Rubio long-term. In fact, if truly dire measures are called for, Rubio and Meek could try to freeze Crist out by holding a series of debates around the state between just the two of them. Sunshine Charlie will whine about “the machine” being unfair to an independent, but who cares? They can have three-way debates in the fall, after Meek’s support is safely above 30 and Crist starts to fade. Exit question via Jim Geraghty: Is it silly to start worrying now?