TAMPA — Heading into the weekend before the election, Floridians thought the three-way race for a U.S. Senate seat here could not become stranger without one of the candidates checking into a hospital before Tuesday for a sex-change operation, or another dropping out to attend seminary. Wrong.
On Thursday evening, bulletins started coming out of Washington, beginning with a report in Politico that former President Billy Bob Clinton had tried to talk Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek, who trails Republican Marco Rubio and free-agent Charlie Crist badly, into dropping out of the race in order to give the liberal Crist a chance of defeating the conservative Rubio. The reports said Meek had twice agreed to drop out but had each time changed his mind and decided to stay the course.
Later reports added that the whole thing was orchestrated by Crist who started the ball rolling by contacting the White House, where operatives know that Meek has no chance of winning, that Crist would caucus with the Democrats if elected, and that conservative Rubio would be bad news for President Obama’s agenda. Crist must have felt compelled to take this course after he had asked Meek last Monday to drop out and Meek declined the opportunity.
The talk shows dined out on this story for a good part of the weekend and would have rolled and snuffled in it even more in the absence of the terrorism bomb story. Meek, Crist, and Rubio gave their conflicting versions of events on just about every network and local talk show. Rubio had more fun than the others. His only chore was to point out that the episode was cynical, absurd, desperate, and beside the point.
The dreary little tale is a non-sequitur because Rubio has built up such a lead that if Meek had announced he’d become a Druid and planned to immigrate to Tasmania right after the election it would have made no difference in the outcome.
A Mason-Dixon poll released Friday shows Rubio at 45 percent, Crist at 28, and Meek at 21. A Sunshine State Poll released earlier showed Rubio with a 20-point lead over Crist and Meek below 20. Most importantly, the assumption that Meek supporters, absent their champion, would vote for Crist is faulty. A Meekless Tuesday would see lots of Democrats, many of whom don’t trust Crist any more than they like Rubio, sitting this one out. More than a million Floridians have already voted.
These two polls are consistent with what most polls have consistently shown over the last few weeks. Crist’s flagging campaign, with no ideas and no money, enjoyed a flicker of hope last week when both a Zogby and a Quinnipiac poll showed Rubio with only a seven-point lead. But these two measurements were almost surely aberrations.
The debate now is about just how cheesed off black voters are over this high-handed treatment of Meek, and how many will stay home Tuesday and not be available to vote for Democrat Alex Sink for governor. Polls in the contentious race between Sink and Republican Rick Scott are mostly within the margin of error, the latest being a New York Times regional newspapers poll showing Scott with a 44 to 39 percent lead with 11 percent undecided and the rest favoring minor party or independent candidates.
The weekend he-said, he-said on what exactly Clinton and Meek and Crist did and/or said produced minimal heat and no light at all. Clinton said he never asked Meek to drop out and that they had just talked a little politics, sort of in the manner that he didn’t offer Joe Sestak a job in the administration if he wouldn’t run against Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania (or perhaps like he “didn’t have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”).
Clinton’s description of events is inconvenienced by his aides (perhaps soon to be former aides) who say he did talk Meek into withdrawing. Crist, who admits he spoke with folks at the White House but won’t say who, is quick to claim the withdrawal story is true, though it’s not clear how he could know what Clinton and Meek said to each other.
For Rubio, the whole business was a belt-high batting practice fastball over the heart of the plate. And he drove it.
“If you ever needed a reminder of what’s wrong with American politics today, this story is a great reminder of back-door deals,” Rubio said at a campaign stop. “That’s what got us ObamaCare. That’s in part what I’m running against… people in Washington who are willing to compromise principle to acquire power.”
Various Republican officials took their turns over the weekend teeing off on Clinton and an almost certainly complicit White House. RNC Chairman Michael Steele speculated on just how big the fertilizer storm would now be had a former Republican president urged a black candidate to get out of a race so the white guy could defeat the Hispanic. Liberals would have hit their fainting couches faster than Maureen Dowd could yell, “racist, sexist, homophobic, right-wing, nativist yahoos!”
This peccadillo is the more bizarre considering that the candidate Clinton almost certainly urged Meek to butt out in favor of was a Republican just six months ago. In his race against Rubio for the Republican nomination last spring, Crist was trying to convince Florida Republican voters that he was Ronald Reagan redux. This is the same guy who pulled every string he could in an attempt to get on the ticket with John McCain in 2008 and then, disguising his utter disappointment, enthused about what a great VP pick Sarah Palin was.
It’s almost impossible, on the basis of conflicting testimony, to determine what in fact happened in this political slight-of-hand. But Meek has a better record of telling the truth than either Crist or Clinton, so for the moment Las Vegas is going with his version of events. In the end, this probably won’t matter much to Rubio’s prospects. But it may well do short and long-range damage to the Democrats’ relationship with blacks, many of whom will feel shafted by this shabby little maneuver. And Clinton’s trying to talk Meek into dropping out between campaign events at which he was telling the faithful that Meek is a terrific candidate and would win if Democrats just turn out to vote, is pretty high-octane cynicism, even for politics.
In what appears to be an attempt at damage control, the Meek campaign reported Saturday that Clinton will appear with Meek in Orlando today. Perhaps the two old friends will kiss and make-up on stage.
Wednesday can’t get here too soon. With any luck the votes will have been counted by then.