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Crist a victim of Tea Party -- and himself

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is going to run as an independent for Senate
  • Ed Rollins says Crist is first moderate casualty of Tea Party, but not the last
  • He says Crist's problems are also self-inflicted
  • Rollins: Crist hasn't stuck by his word; has turned out to be a "me" candidate

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- The governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, is announcing today that he will not run as a Republican for the open U.S. Senate race, but will seek that office as an independent.

After months of campaigning for the Republican nomination he has decided there is no way he can win the August 24 Republican primary and would lose big time to his more conservative challenger.

This is a big story and has ramifications beyond the sunshine state. Crist was a rising star in the Republican Party and viewed himself as a future candidate for president. He may be the first moderate casualty of the Tea Party movement but certainly not the last.

But before the story is over-analyzed by the pundits, and it will be, it is important to remember some things about politics and campaigns. The candidate matters. And in primaries, whether it is for a statewide office or in presidential politics, it's the candidate who appeals to a party's base who is going to win.

On Crist's political tombstone could be etched the immortal words spoken by Marlon Brando from the 1954 best picture "On the Waterfront":

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody."

I guess it's hard to say the governor of Florida isn't somebody, but his desertion of his party in choosing to run as an independent makes him a nobody to the party that nominated him and helped elect him Florida's attorney general and the state's 44th governor.

Video: Gov. Crist goes Independent
Video: Gov. Crist crossing party line
Video: Crist goes it alone
Video: Meek not concerned by Crist decision
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He was already viewed as traitor by many conservatives for his physical embrace of President Obama on a visit to Florida last year and his endorsement of the Democratic passed stimulus bill. He damaged his credibility during the 2008 presidential primary when, after committing his support to Rudy Giuliani, he switched to John McCain in the closing days before the Florida primary, giving McCain an important victory there.

That was after he switched from McCain earlier in the race when McCain's campaign faltered. In politics, a man's word is his bond, but not to Crist. As his closest aides are quoted as saying, "Charlie's all about Charlie."

Charlie so wanted to be the vice presidential candidate in 2008 it's reported he bargained with Giuliani's team for the slot and pushed the eventual nominee McCain likewise, but to no avail.

The final act of treason to Republicans, before the announcement he is making today to run as an independent, was his veto last week of a teacher pay and tenure reform bill supported by the Florida Republican legislative leadership and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In typical fashion Gov. Crist was for the bill and then as teacher union protests mounted he was against it.

The irony of all this is that the damage to Charlie Crist is self-inflicted. He is a man of enormous ambition, but not much courage, who wants to be president. He could have easily been re-elected governor but didn't want to deal with the multibillion dollar deficits facing Florida now and in the coming years.

So he decided, to quote country singer Johnny Paycheck's lyrics, "You can take this job and shove it," and gave up the governor's mansion to move with his new bride to Washington, where he could hide behind the other 99 senators who spending taxpayers' dollars at record rates.

However, along the way Crist ran into an incredible new star of the Republican Party, Marco Rubio, a young conservative Cuban American who was former speaker of the Florida House.

Crist, who began his Senate campaign as the heavy favorite in both Florida and Washington (endorsed by the National Republican Senate Campaign Committee), saw his commanding lead evaporate.

After spending millions in negative ads attacking Rubio, Crist fell so far behind the Tea Party-supported candidate that victory in the Republican primary seemed impossible. The latest polls have him getting only 28 percent of the Republican vote.

For Crist to win as an independent is difficult but not impossible. Joe Lieberman showed that when, after losing a Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, he won the seat as an independent.

Crist touts polls that show him leading in a three-way race with Rubio and the Democrat candidate Congressman Kendrick Meek. But with only 20 percent of the state's voters viewing themselves as independents, and the prospects of both campaigns attacking Crist openly on his term as governor, I believe over time he will fall behind.

But even if he were to win unexpectedly in November, Charlie Crist's career as a future presidential candidate is over.

In some places around the country independents and Tea Party candidates will run and make a difference. But in Florida this is about Charlie Crist and a Republican Party that is more conservative then he is -- and nothing more.

And to again quote the Marlon Brando character, when asked by his girlfriend Edie "Which side are you with?" "Me? I'm with me!"

Charlie Crist, the "me" candidate, might have been a contender, but he already has proved he doesn't have class.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.