Dems’ Efforts to Get Meek to Drop Out: Too Little, Too Late?

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A guest post from TIME’s Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett

So how desperate are the Democrats to keep control of the U.S. Senate? The answer is fairly clear in a story that appeared Thursday evening on that quotes spokesmen for former President Bill Clinton claiming he tried to convince Democratic Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek last week to drop his flagging candidacy for the U.S. Senate and clear the way for Florida Governor Charlie Crist to defeat the Republican front-runner, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna told Politico that Clinton’s argument to Meek was: “‘You can be a hero here. You can stop [Rubio], you can change this race in one swoop.” Crist, a moderate who bolted the GOP last spring to run as an independent, said Thursday night the Politico piece was accurate. “How do I know?” he said on MSNBC. “Because I had numerous phone calls with people very close to President Clinton.” But Meek, who before the piece posted had dropped to a dismal 15% in a new Quinnipiac poll Wednesday, called the report – which even indicates that at one point he had agreed to announce on Oct. 25 that he was dropping out but changed his mind at the last minute – “absolutely not true,” and his campaign vowed he would not quit.

Whether true or not, leading Florida Democrats tell TIME, the goal of Clinton and the national Dems was to plant door-closing doubts about Meek in the minds of the state’s Democratic voters and persuade them to mark their ballots for Crist, who is widely expected to caucus with the Democrats should he win the open Senate seat. “We’ve all been hearing for more than a week now that Kendrick was considering [dropping out],” says one state Democratic leader. The Politico story, he adds, “sends a strong message to Democratic voters that there is no chance of him winning and they should vote for Crist.”

Former Democratic state House Speaker Peter Wallace, who on Wednesday endorsed Crist, echoed that feeling. “There’s no question at this point that based on reports of President Clinton’s efforts and perhaps the efforts of the White House, [this] is a strong indication that Kendrick Meek’s campaign faces little hope of success,” Wallace told the Miami Herald. (The Herald also quoted a White House source saying the Obama Administration was “aware” of Clinton’s efforts.)

The Quinnipiac poll showed Crist narrowing Rubio’s once double-digit lead to seven points: Rubio, the conservative Tea Party favorite, at 42% and Crist at 35%. Much of Crist’s gain obviously came at the expense of Meek, who in recent polls had been closer to 20%. That trend, say the Florida Dems, apparently convinced the Clinton and national Democratic camps that Crist can beat Rubio next Tuesday if they can get more Sunshine State Democrats to move to the Governor – hence the 11th-hour squeeze on Meek, a popular South Florida pol whose bid to become the first African-American Senator from the South since Reconstruction has been rocky from the outset.

One of the ironies of the stunning Clinton report is that Meek has had a cool relationship with the Obama White House due to Meek’s support for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008. National Republican Committee Chairman Michael Steele, also an African-American, called Clinton and the Democrats hypocrites Thursday night: “One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race.a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek.” (Crist, however, is popular with many black voters: In the 2006 gubernatorial election, he got 20% of the black vote, more than any Florida Republican had ever polled.)

Like most Democratic maneuvers in these mid-terms, the Florida gambit is most likely too little too late. Then again, this is Florida: far stranger political things have happened on this peninsula. As a result, Clinton and company probably figured it was worth a shot trying to change the game in “one swoop.”