Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Tuesday that he will not support Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) in his Senate race if he runs as an Independent.
Crist, who helped McCain win Florida in the 2008 presidential GOP primary, has recently indicated he is mulling an Independent bid. McCain has backed Crist, but made it clear Tuesday that his endorsement will not stand if Crist is not the Republican candidate.
Asked if he will support Crist as an Independent, McCain told The Hill, “No.”
Pressed further, McCain said, “I support Republicans.”
McCain, who is facing a GOP primary challenge this year, added that Crist is “a dear friend. I like him, admire him and respect him, but I’m also a Republican.”
Polls show that GOP candidate Marco Rubio has a significant lead over Crist. However, polls also indicate that as an Independent, Crist has a small lead over Rubio and likely Democratic candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek (Fla.).
Crist has until April 30 to decide whether he wants to run as an Independent. While Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) had to collect signatures to run as an Independent in 2006, Crist merely has to pay a filing fee.
Both Lieberman and Crist were under consideration to be McCain’s running mate in 2008.
In a memo that was leaked on Monday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) stated there is “zero chance” that Crist will remain in the GOP primary.
Crist told the National Review Online on Tuesday that he is staying in the race, but did not commit to running as a Republican.
NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said on Tuesday that he traded phone calls with Crist on Monday night but has been unable to connect yet.
The NRSC chairman “looks forward to talking” to Crist as soon as possible to discuss the governor’s “options.”
“He may stay in the primary or may decide to take a pass. I think those are the two choices available to him. The numbers look pretty tough at this point [for Crist] but that’s his choice. My recommendation is don’t switch parties,” Cornyn said.
During an interview on CNN's “State of the Union” on Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who endorsed the Crist in May of last year, said the governor “would lose all Republican support if he were to run as an Independent.”
Officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) are relishing the prospect of a three-way race, where Meek, running in an uncontested primary, could seize momentum.
Even if Crist remains in the GOP primary, DSCC Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said, the primary fight has been so “bloody” that the campaign committee may get more involved in a race that was long considered a good bet to stay in the Republican column.
“The mere fact that I tell you that it is a race that is now much more serious than it was for Democrats speaks volumes,” Menendez said, declining to reveal specific campaign strategies.
For that reason, some Republicans want Crist to take Cornyn’s advice and sit this one out. Crist could still run for a second term as governor of the Sunshine State, or run in the 2012 Senate election.
One GOP aide said Crist should wait until 2012 to run against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who easily won his second term in 2006 against then-Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Nelson is expected to be a GOP target in the next cycle.
Crist has been avoiding calls from many politicians in Washington, according to Senate GOP leadership aides familiar with the situation.
Even Crist supporters in the Senate, including Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R), haven’t talked with the governor in weeks. Like McCain, Chambliss said he will not endorse a candidate who has bolted the GOP.
“I can’t endorse somebody who isn’t a Republican, not that I am going to withdraw anything. I [wouldn’t be] active in the campaign by any means,” Chambliss explained, noting that he had actively recruited Crist.
The Florida governor has talked to Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), according to a LeMieux staffer. The GOP senator urged his longtime friend and former boss to stay in the Republican primary.
Crist appointed LeMieux to the upper chamber after then-Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) resigned last year.
Crist’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Aaron Blake contributed to this article.