Tallahassee, Fla. (AP) - Popular GOP Gov. Charlie Crist is passing on an easy re-election bid and instead will run for U.S. Senate, a decision that excites Washington Republicans who desperately want to avoid further losses in 2010.
Crist, 52, instantly becomes the front-runner in the Senate race. He has maintained approval ratings in the high 60 percent range despite the state's gloomy economy, budget cuts, a high foreclosure rate and the highest unemployment since 1975.
But the Senate race is by no means a cakewalk. Crist faces a challenge from former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a solid conservative who is questioning Crist's commitment to Republican principles.
And Democrats will make Crist a top target as they try to maintain what's likely to be a 60-seat majority in the Senate, the number they need to overcome GOP filibusters and help pass President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
"My fear is that the governor's Senate candidacy is not going to be as smooth and effortless as it seems at this point," said Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant.
Crist kept his announcement low-key, issuing a press release instead of scheduling a news conference. But he guaranteed plenty of questions from reporters by e-mailing the statement just before three state-related media events.
"For me, it's always been about service, wanting to serve the people of Florida the very best I possibly can," he said at the first event. "I also understand that the challenges that Florida faces are not just Florida challenges, they're national issues. As a result of that, I believe that I can best serve the people of Florida, if they're willing to allow me, as their next United States senator."
Top Republicans immediately lined up behind Crist. Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, endorsed him, as did Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander.
Rubio, though, won't go away, and he made it clear he plans to criticize Crist as being too close to Democrats on fiscal issues. He released a YouTube video with a slowly swirling image that comes into focus with Crist and Obama standing face to face. The photo is from an appearance Crist made with the president to promote the $787 billion federal stimulus package that was widely opposed by Republicans. Crist's endorsement of the plan upset some in the GOP.
"Borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children and a terrible threat to a fragile economy. Today, too many politicians embrace Washington's same old broken ways," an announcer says. "Let the debate begin."
Crist has been an atypical Republican in other ways. He refused to get involved in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case when he served as attorney general. During the governor's race he took a "live and let live" attitude on same-sex civil unions and said he wants to change hearts and not abortion laws. Since taking office, he has championed some issues important to Democrats, including banning touch-screen voting machines, helping felons get their voting rights back and pushing for tough clean energy standards for electric plants.
And with so much at stake, Democrats are also expected to spend millions against Crist. Democrat and independents hold 59 Senate seats and would reach 60 if Al Franken wins a marathon recount in Minnesota.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which had already been running a TV ad against Crist in Tallahassee, quickly pointed out Florida's economic problems and budget cuts.
"Too many in Florida are hurting because Governor Crist has failed to provide leadership and a way out of this mess. He's jumping ship when he's needed the most. That isn't leadership - it is an abdication of responsibility," said DSCC spokesman Eric Schultz.
Crist's announcement, which had been expected, is also likely to stir up Florida politics as others scramble to replace the popular governor, who was considered a shoo-in had he sought a second term.
Crist left the state Senate to seek the same U.S. Senate seat in 1998, losing to Democratic incumbent Bob Graham. That race helped Crist build his name recognition and a network that helped him win the next three statewide races he entered - education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006.
Democrats in the race include U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and state Sen. Dan Gelber, both from Miami-Dade County.
Crist's decision gives Democrats their best chance in more than a decade at winning back some power in Tallahassee. Republicans have controlled the governor's mansion and the Legislature since former Gov. Jeb Bush began the first of his two terms in 1998.
Popular GOP Gov. Charlie Crist is passing on an easy re-election bid and instead will run for U.S. Senate, a decision that excites Washington Republicans who desperately want to avoid further losses in 2010.