World and Nation

Breaking down a three-way Senate race in Florida

MIAMI — With Governor Charlie Crist’s announcement on Thursday that he will run independently for the U.S. Senate, Florida will once again become a gawk-worthy stage of American politics, where the country’s desires, fears and conflicts play out.

Crist told supporters in his hometown, St. Petersburg, that his decision to leave the Republican Party was “the right thing for America” and “the right thing for Florida.”

In a six-minute speech, he acknowledged that he was in “uncharted territory.” But even the most experienced strategists here are dumbfounded. Perhaps never before, they said, has there been a three-way Senate race in a major swing state with well-financed candidates and so much at stake in terms of the balance of power in Washington.

The usual campaign scripts — with candidates playing to their bases in the primary, then moving to the middle in the general election — are not relevant anymore. The winner in November might need as little as 34 percent of the vote. And with only 22 percent of the Florida electorate registered as neither Democrats nor Republicans, the most vital question of the race will be: How frustrated are voters with their own parties, and how many will stay loyal?

“Both parties have to go out and secure their base to win,” said Steve Schale, state director for the Obama campaign in 2008. “That comes with perils, though; it is exactly what Charlie Crist wants them to do.”

All three candidates portray themselves as outsiders, but all are career politicians. It is still not clear which issues will dominate the campaign. Immigration? Health care? Jobs? The standing of President Barrack Obama is also likely to play a significant role.

But, according to advisers to the campaigns and outside political experts, this will not be a race of just messaging. Money, campaign structure, the national party’s role and the wild card of unexpected mistakes — they all matter, even more than usual in a race of such magnitude. Each candidate has advantages, and challenges to overcome.

No one would seem to benefit more from a Crist run as an independent than Kendrick Meek, for one simple reason: The numbers are on his side. There are now 650,000 more registered Democrats in Florida than Republicans. And if registration continues along its expected path, that lead would amount to about 2 percentage points in November. If he does better with Democratic voters than either Crist or Rubio does with Republicans — and if Crist does not win nearly every independent vote — Meek becomes Florida’s next senator.