WASHINGTON — He hugged President Barack Obama at his peril, or so it seemed at the time.
Now, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the Republican Party and became an independent to keep his U.S. Senate bid alive, will spend Wednesday night in Washington as the guest of honor at one of the most curious fundraising events of 2010.
The event's hosts aren't Republicans, or independents, but Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobson, a husband-and-wife team of centrist Democrats best known for their ties to former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Clintons' allegiance is to one of their backers, Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, one of two Democrats in the Aug. 24 primary. The other Democrat, Jeff Greene, is a colorful billionaire who made a fortune betting against subprime mortgages. The winner will face Crist and Republican Marco Rubio in November.
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Crist, reached Tuesday by phone at the airport in Atlanta on his way to Washington, said he's "very grateful, delighted and very pleased" to take part in an event where donors are invited to give as much as $4,800 each.
Crist also said running as an independent, despite its financial challenges, has been "truly liberating" and that "it's wonderful to be able to just speak your mind and not have to be concerned about what a party might think, but rather what's important to the people."
He was coy about all the juicy details, however: Who reached out to whom about putting this fundraiser together? What other Democrats will be there? Aside from the advice he gets from Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, what sort of courting from which national Democrats is going on behind the scenes?
Does he consider this emerging Democratic support an affirmation of his candidacy or merely hedging on the part of Democrats who don't trust Greene, or don't think Meek or Greene can win, and would rather have Crist in the Senate than the more conservative, Tea Party-backed Rubio?
"The best I can tell you is I just have a lot of friends that are Republicans, Democrats and independents, and some of my Democratic friends were willing to help try to put this together, and Mark and his wife were kind enough to agree to do so," Crist said.
Penn didn't respond to questions about the fundraiser.
"It's just like any event," Crist said. "I mean, it's friends recommending to other friends that some help might be beneficial not only to the campaign, but hopefully to the state of Florida and to the future of our country."
Jacobson hosted a meet-and-greet for Crist in New York last month, but Crist said he's not yet met Penn, who was Hillary Clinton's pollster and chief strategist in her 2008 presidential campaign.
Crist said he's had no contact with the Clintons. Asked whether he'll seek their support in the general election, he said, "I think we ought to cross that bridge when we get to it. I don't want to put the cart before the horse."
Obama has said that he supports Meek. However, several Democratic hands have joined Crist's team along with Republicans and independents.
These include his South Florida political director; a pollster; and media strategist Josh Isay, a co-founder of a consulting firm whose principals also include former Obama communications director Anita Dunn. Isay advised Lieberman's independent run and did some work for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and was a chief of staff to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Crist spokesman Danny Kanner also has worked for Democrats and independents in New York and Missouri.
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