ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Gov. Charlie Crist ended weeks of speculation Thursday, announcing he is running for the U.S. Senate as a nonpartisan candidate and turning an already volatile race into a three-way free-for-all.
"The easy thing for me would have been to run for re-election as governor, but for me it's never been about doing what is easy.... I haven't supported an idea because it's a Republican idea or Democratic idea. I support ideas because they are good ideas for the people," he told a cheering crowd in St. Petersburg.
He added that his run as an independent candidate is "uncharted territory."
The announcement virtually hands the Republican nomination to the newly crowned giant slayer of the 2010 election -- former House Speaker Marco Rubio -- and thrusts overlooked Democratic frontrunner Kendrick Meek into the center ring.
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Florida's next senator could be elected with less than 35 percent of the vote.
"I think all three of them have a very legitimate shot here. When you're talking about winning in the 30s, all bets are off," said Democratic consultant Eric Johnson, adding that he would not be surprised if Crist won handily or lost overwhelmingly.
Crist made the announcement at waterfront Straub Park, surrounded by family members, old friends and educators enthused by Crist's recent veto of a contentious teacher tenure bill.
Many Republicans are abandoning Crist, but a small band of loyal supporters is standing by him.
"He's my friend, that's my brother. Of course I'm sticking with him," said Brent Sembler, a top Republican fundraiser and Crist's finance chairman.
Crist's independent campaign launch comes at a time when recession-weary voters are furious at incumbents in both parties and threatening revenge at the ballot box.
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