Florida's Soap Opera of a Senate Race

Tallahassee, FL – Florida's three-way Senate race is building to a dramatic finish. Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek, the third-place candidate, denied claims that former President Bill Clinton had advised him to drop out. Polls show Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist splitting the Democratic vote, giving the lead to the Republican candidate Marco Rubio. As James Call reports, national pundits portrayed the former president as trying to prevent the GOP from taking control of the U.S. Senate.

The story, first reported by Politico, broke the same day a Quinnipiac University poll showed Meek with 15 percent of the vote and Crist pulling within 7 points of Rubio. The former House Speaker led the survey with 42 percent of respondents. Interest in the report led Meek to call a Thursday night news conference to say he was staying in the race until the finish.

"The people of the state of Florida has to vote, so let's let them vote," he said. "Let's let them pick the candidate of their choice."

Clinton's involvement in the Florida Senate race is part of his effort to keep the Democrats in control of Congress. He has visited a different state almost every day for the past two weeks. Republicans would need a net gain of 10 seats to have a Senate majority. Unlikely but possible, if a wave of discontented voters show up on Election Day. Rubio is mining that discontent. He's considered a Tea Party favorite. However, the Quinnipiac Florida survey indicated Crist cut Rubio's lead in half in less than two weeks of work. And the poll's assistant director, Peter Brown, said the gains apparently came at Meek's expense.

"Is the erosion of Kendrick Meek's vote that took place in the last week with most of it going to Mr. Crist - is that the beginning of something or the end of something?" Brown asked. "If that is all that it is, then Mr. Crist won't catch Mr. Rubio. If it is part of an overall large movement, then that would have to be the scenario for victory for Mr. Crist. It is still steeply uphill, but anything is possible in politics."

When asked about poll numbers, Crist talks like he's planning to ride a late surge to victory.

"Ten days ago we were down by 16," he said, laughing. "That's hard for me to consider going down. I think we're moving up. I think we are in striking distance and I'm excited about it."

A graph of the governor's poll numbers the past 14 months resembles the steep hill of a roller coaster. He once had a 29 point lead in the race. Since that August 2009 survey, Marco Rubio overtook Crist first among Republican voters. Crist then left the Republican party, and since then Rubio has taken the lead among all voters.

Florida State University communications professor Jay Rayburn has conducted surveys for about 30 years. He said questions about credibility may have caused Crist's slide in the poll. Rayburn said it is usually professional suicide for a high-ranking elected official, like a governor, to leave a political party.

"I think part of what's happened -- and I saw it when it happened -- he was on Chris Wallace. And Wallace asked him, asked him probably asked him four or five times, 'Are you or are you going to run as a Republican?' 'Absolutely, I'm a Republican I've always been a Republican and I will run as a Republican.' And the next thing you know he's an independent and running for the Senate."

Rayburn said people want to believe what their leaders say and the governor's evolving position on a handful of issues along with resigning, in essence, from what is the leadership of the State Republican Party creates questions. Both Meek and front runner Rubio have attacked Crist's credibility. Here's Rubio during a CNN debate:

"What voters deserve is that we not spend, you know, a tremendous amount of time to convince people that all of a sudden he's found a new path to politics. The reality is he switched because he couldn't win the primary."

Former Democratic State Senate Leader Steve Geller recruited Charlie Crist to run for a student office when both attended Florida State University in the mid-1970s.

"Charlie is the ultimate populist," Geller said. "He has the ability to sense where the voter wants to be and that is where he ends up wanting to be. I believe. Charlie does not have that 'I am a deep conservative' [or] 'I'm a really a liberal.' Charlie is by nature a moderate and there is a lot of people who when they see partisanship would like to see a moderate."

Since Geller made those comments, half of Rubio's lead has evaporated. The Quinnipiac Poll indicates 7 percent of the voters are undecided and another 11 percent may change their vote by the time they get to the polls. The Rubio and Crist campaigns are cris-crossing the state with competing bus tours, making their final pitch to that final 18 percent of the vote, with Rubio up by 7.