Rubio, Crist & Meek: The three-party system - a free-spending Tea Party Republican, a recently minted Indie and the last Dem standing

Just minutes after finishing an intense debate with Senate rivals Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist in the studio of WTVT-Fox 13 in Tampa on October 15, Kendrick Meek met the press for a debriefing.

Immediately a reporter repeated the question that moderator John Wilson had just asked him: Would he consider withdrawing from the three-way contest to give Crist a better chance of knocking off the front-runner Rubio?

"I will not drop out of this race for any reason," he said, his voice rising. "I'm nominated by the Democrats of the state of Florida. I mean, I am in this race to run to be the next United States senator."

Yet the question was inevitable.

For Kendrick Meek, it had been a rough week, and frankly, a rough campaign. His candidacy was overshadowed initially by the epic Crist-Rubio Republican primary, but the Miami Congressman reached a high-water mark of sorts on August 24 when he beat expectations and thrashed billionaire Jeff Greene in the Democratic primary.

Michelle B. Patty, an activist and entrepreneur active in the black community in Tampa, says she's appalled at Democrats calling for Meek to step down, calling it "racism at its ugliest."

"That you would take the person who is the Democratic choice, who won the election, and now you're telling him to get out for someone who has no party affiliation? It could end up creating a backlash for future candidates, because in the African-American community we are highly upset about that."

Patty's anger is exactly why Meek was never going to get out of the race, according to University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith.

"Democrats need Kendrick Meek on the ballot to generate enthusiasm for Alex Sink," he says of the party's gubernatorial candidate. "He is there not necessarily as a sacrificial lamb, but as a very important cog in the get-out-the-vote effort for the Democrats and OFA [Organizing For America, the organizing arm for Barack Obama prominently involved in this year's midterms]."

Meek's strategy in recent debates has clearly been to capture those Democrats who have already strayed to Crist or remain undecided, hammering him for wavering on offshore drilling, gay adoption and a woman's right to choose.

But he just hasn't received the respect he believes he's owed, and at times hasn't been able to restrain his frustration about it, such as when the Sierra Club endorsed both him and the governor in early October. Moments after a CL tweet informed the Meek camp about that, a press release was issued announcing the Miami Congressman had rejected the endorsement, calling it "an insult to Florida's environmental community." With his 100 percent record from the League of Conservation Voters, compared to Crist's flip-flopping on offshore drilling and his lack of commitment to climate change, Meek surely had a legitimate gripe. But the slight also reflected the reluctance of some Democratic-aligned groups — and Democrats — to fully embrace his candidacy.

Whether Meek could have beaten a Republican in this year of the Tea Party is dubious, but his chances ended on April 29. That's when Crist, aware that his dream of becoming Florida's next U.S. Senator was doomed due to his fading popularity within the Republican Party of Florida, announced in St Petersburg's Straub Park that he was leaving the GOP and would run as an independent, the only viable option left to him.

In the weeks leading up to his announcement, Crist vetoed SB 6, the controversial education bill that included merit pay for teachers. As a result he earned a co-endorsement from the Florida Education Association, usually a Democratic party ally (they did also co-endorse Meek), as well as the thank-you's of many teachers, who became instant converts to his emerging new political persona.

Thus began the Charlie Crist Independent Tour, billed as the antidote to partisan gridlock but really an effort to cultivate liberal groups, some of whom didn't need much wooing to back him over Meek.

Such was the case with the Teamsters Union. On Labor Day in the Hillsborough County town of Dover, the Florida Pipe Trade's annual picnic this year featured Democratic candidates like Linda Saul-Sena, Bill Heller and Stacy Frank, but the main attraction was Crist, with the charismatic governor treating it just like a campaign event (nearly every one of the 100 people in attendance wore Crist stickers). When the lifelong (until recently) Republican was asked if he'd attended any previous labor events, Crist said he had, but failed to mention when or where.

In some ways, Crist represents the very best and worst of what people desire in their politicians. Unlike most lawmakers, he truly doesn't seem to be filled with ideology, instead preferring always to be of service to "the people." That populism was a key reason why his poll numbers were extraordinarily high in his first couple of years in office — higher than those of his predecessor, Jeb Bush. He was a Republican in a center-right state, and Democrats and independents, turned off by Bush's strong conservative brand, warmed to him instantly when he showed he was more moderate on issues like the environment and education. His legendary people skills also boosted his popularity numbers, though Republican legislators were never as impressed.

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