Crist: I'm not running as an independent

Rumors swirled around Florida that Charlie Crist would opt out of the Republican primary in Florida to challenge Marco Rubio as an independent in the general election instead.  The Orlando Sentinel, among others, reported that Crist would veto some Republican initiatives on education reform and other issues to stake out ground as a middle-of-the-road option in the Senate election in November.  Instead, the rumors prompted the Crist campaign to forcefully deny any such strategy:

The Charlie Crist U.S. Senate campaign sought to ends weeks of speculation Thursday with a strongly worded statement saying flatly that – despite sagging poll numbers against rival Marco Rubio — Crist would not leave the Republican Party to run as an independent.

“To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Governor Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican,” said Crist Campaign Manager Eric Eikenberg. “He will not run as an Independent or as a No Party Affiliation.”

Crist, the statement said, is “proud of his conservative credentials and stands firmly behind the principles of limited government and more personal freedom, the bedrock values of the Republican Party.”

Eikenberg said the statement should “completely and utterly put to rest any of the unfounded rumors coming from the Rubio campaign that Governor Crist would run as anything other than the Republican that he is.”

The decision to veto the teacher merit-pay bill, which Crist has not yet done, would spell the end of any hope of reconnecting to the Republican establishment.  Jeb Bush, still tremendously popular in Florida, personally backed that initiative.  Although Bush criticized Crist on the campaign trail earlier this year in calling Crist’s support for Porkulus “unforgivable,” Jeb has not yet endorsed anyone in the race.  A veto of Bush’s pet project in education reform would almost certainly put Bush in Rubio’s corner and finish Crist in the primary, and probably in the party as well.

Of course, Crist already looks pretty toasted — electorally speaking, mind you — in this primary.  Rubio announced this week that he had raised a staggering $3.6 million in the previous quarter, which looks pretty good for an insurgent candidate.  Crist has delayed announcing his numbers, which doesn’t mean they’re too busy counting all the cash to have a number ready for publication.  It usually means that a campaign wants to find ways to spin a disaster.

Crist still has three weeks to change his mind.  He has to decide by April 30th whether he wants to get thumped in a primary, or have a long shot at not getting thumped in a general election.  Despite this categorical denial, a decision to veto this education reform bill would mean that Crist won’t have anywhere in the Florida GOP to go.