Commentary: Charlie Crist as an independent will be fun to watch

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and his wife Carole, left, are campaigning hard for re-election.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and his wife Carole, left, are campaigning hard for re-election. Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald/MCT

It's inevitable: Charlie Crist, independent candidate for the U.S. Senate.

You've never seen such fuming, whining and grinding of capped teeth. And that's not from voters — that's from Republican leaders, who are pitching a hissy fit.

They want the governor to shut up and go away, but he's not playing ball. They want him to yield the stage to Marco Rubio, a robotic right-wing smoothie, but Charlie insists on hanging around for an encore.

It's going to be messy, occasionally vicious and, for spectators, immensely entertaining.

Some pollsters say Crist has a dead-even chance of beating Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek in the general election. Weirder things have happened in this state.

At a time when people across the political spectrum seem disgusted by partisan animosities, a candidate who turns his back on both parties could prove appealing.

In Florida, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 650,000, Rubio's handlers were counting on picking off a decisive chunk of registered independents. Crist's candidacy jeopardizes that strategy, which is why GOP big-shots are ticked off.

Not so long ago, the governor was their golden boy, and not just because of his trademark tan. Most of the party's top dogs were singing his praises for the Senate.

But try as he might -- and at times it was pathetic to watch -- Crist just couldn't swerve hard enough to the right. His belated bashing of President Obama sounded halfhearted compared with the spittle-flecked ravings on Fox News.

The governor is famous for tacking with the political breeze, but even he couldn't pull off a convincing ideological swoop to ultra-conservativism.

That's the irreconcilable problem: Crist is a moderate in a party whose leaders no longer tolerate it.

Always distrustful of him, Republican screamers officially turned on the governor after he accepted federal stimulus benefits. In a state suffering from brutal unemployment and epidemic home foreclosures, only a moron would have turned down the money.

They're still trying to crucify him for supporting the stimulus, a line of attack that will be be increasingly risky as the economy turns around.

At this point, Crist has nothing to lose by running for the Senate as an independent. It worked in Connecticut for one-time Democrat Joe Lieberman, who triumphed despite the fury of his former party and a numbing deficit of personal charisma.

Crist is more affable than Lieberman, and owns a keener instinct for well-timed drama. His recent veto of the controversial Republican education bill, which would have tied teacher salaries to student test scores, made the front page of the New York Times.

The legislation was vehemently opposed by Florida teachers and many parents, and Crist's action won over new fans as well as some doubters.

More significantly, it enhanced his national branding as a "mavericky" kind of guy, to steal from Tina Fey.

Now Charlie is sitting up in Tallahassee, merrily twirling his veto pen, driving fellow Republicans up the wall.

A GOP bill that would have jacked up property insurance rates for most Floridians was abandoned last week because of fears that Crist would kill it -- and thereby generate more positive publicity for himself.

The irony is ripe. The same gang that's been leaning on Crist to leave the Senate race apparently forgot he's still the governor, a fairly high-profile gig.

Although he trails Rubio badly in the contest for the Republican primary, he's not nearly so unpopular among other voters. If Meek fails to mount a compelling race -- and early polls suggest he will struggle -- some Democrats are bound to shy away and cast their ballots for Crist.

Still, a trip to Washington would be an improbable, uphill slog. The national GOP will be pouring double-digit millions into Rubio's war chest, while the governor will have to scramble for financing.

You'll see at least four Rubio commercials for every one that Crist can afford.

Meanwhile, all the big Republican guns, from Jeb Bush to Sarah Palin, will be out stumping for his opponent, leaving Charlie to stump pretty much all by himself.

He won't have the cash or the endorsements that his opponents do, but he'll have one thing they don't have: the governorship. If, as predicted, Florida has a hectic hurricane season, Crist will be on TV more than Al Roker.

No matter what happens in the November election, the Senate race will be vastly more interesting with a viable independent rattling both political parties to their cores.

How could that not be fun to watch?