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Does Crist Indy Run Help or Hurt Meek's Chances?

Now that Gov. Charlie Crist has declared an independent candidacy for U.S. Senate, likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek will have a general election challenge that's different from what he might have been anticipating a month ago. This week, I quizzed some Florida Democratic Party insiders about whether Crist's staying in the race was good news for Meek or not.

"It's good news," said one of those operatives, who exchanged frankness for anonymity. I asked how it changed the Meek strategy. "When you only need 34 percent to win, his best chance is to run hard at the [Democratic] base," said the source.

That means working hard to make sure that unions turn out their voters, giving them extra incentive by campaigning more forcefully in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. It means stressing education, a hot topic that happens to be a strong part of Meek's résumé, thanks to his high-profile role with the class size amendment in Florida.

Another Democratic Party source agreed that Meek is in a better position to come from behind than he was last week. "Anytime you have two Republicans in a race against a Democrat, it's good for the Democrat," says the party operative. "The Democrats have a 750,000-person registration advantage, and Kendrick Meek was able to get on the ballot with 125,000 signatures, which speaks to the grassroots nature of the campaign."

How does a high-profile independent candidate like Crist change the campaign dynamics? "Rubio and Meek will play more to their base, while Crist will take the moderate approach," says the source.

The middle-of-the-road path might lead to favorable polling numbers, like a recent Quinnipiac poll that found an independent Crist would be the favorite in a three-way race. But this Democrat insider didn't think Crist would keep that advantage through the fall, when the middle tends to drop out. "Base voters are more consistent in turnout, so how long till Crist drops to third in the polls?"

Personally, I haven't seen much evidence that Meek will be able to galvanize the Democratic base, but the party operative says that it's a simple matter of "comparing the alternative." The base doesn't have to be fired up about Meek per se. "Marco Rubio should be the biggest motivator of the Democratic base we've had for a long time."

I'm skeptical for many of the same reasons I mentioned two weeks ago: Crist and Rubio dominate the news coverage, making it hard for Meek to make himself known to voters. I also think Crist will take more of the independents from Meek than Rubio would have in a two-way general election. Finally, if it comes down to turning out the base, Rubio's is the most energized.

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Thomas Francis

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