WASHINGTON — In an apparent nod to Democrats, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Thursday he'd support repealing the policy that bars openly gay people from serving in the military, reversing what he told reporters three days earlier.
In a statement from his campaign, Crist said he'd" be inclined" to support a compromise that would lift the ban only after the Pentagon completes a study and the president and Pentagon brass certify that the change won't hurt the military.
"Ultimately, as in all military matters I defer to the Pentagon and to the generals and what the Senate is doing today is giving them the ultimate authority to do what is best for our military,'' Crist said. "So, I would be inclined to support the Senate's action on this."
Crist, who last month left the Republican party to run for the Senate as an independent, told reporters Monday that "I think the current policy has worked pretty well for America. I really do. So I don't know why there's any need for change at this time."
Thursday, his rivals in the Senate race quickly accused the newly independent Senate candidate of flipping, with Republican Marco Rubio noting Crist's stance "comes stunningly just three days after telling Florida reporters he saw no need to change the policy." A spokesman for Rubio said the former state House speaker "supports the current policy and doesn't see any reason for it to change."
With polls showing Crist poaching Democratic voters, Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek had been using his support for repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to cast himself as the "lone progressive'' in the race, accusing Crist and Rubio of siding "with the far right instead of our men and women in uniform."
In a conference call Thursday, Meek blasted Crist for what he said was a pattern of changing his positions to suit his political needs.
"This is not about being independent, this is about being for whatever way the wind blows for his own personal gain,'' Meek said. "As far as I can tell, the only thing that Charlie Crist stands for from one day to the next is his own self preservation.''
Meek noted that Crist backtracked on his support for oil drilling after the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and vetoed an education bill after an uproar from teachers.
In contrast, Meek said he has co-sponsored efforts to lift the 17-year-old law that has long been opposed by gay activists, "in support of individuals who are putting their lives in the line of fire."
The dustup came as the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 12-6 Thursday to end the ban. The House was scheduled to vote later Thursday or Friday on an identical measure. Both measures were expected to pass, largely along party lines.
Crist's campaign said the compromise "allows the military to be the final decision maker on this issue, not Congress."
Meek, who has struggled to gain attention in the high-profile jousting between Crist and Rubio, dismissed questions about whether he's worried that Crist is trying to cut into his base.
By the August primary, Meek said,"people will know there is a Democrat in the race and that Democrat is me. The way I see the governor's candidacy is that Marco Rubio is Republican right and (Crist) is Republican lite."
(Beth Reinhard of the Miami Herald contributed to this article.)