Rubio uses Meek controversy even as his lead is comfortable

Rubio uses Meek controversy even as his lead is comfortable

Republican Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE has seized the controversy surrounding Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWith Ryan out, let’s blow up the process for selecting the next Speaker When Barbara Bush praised Bill Clinton, and Clinton praised the man she loved Meet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska MORE's reported efforts to get Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek out of the Florida Senate race to tout his own candidacy.

“If you ever needed a reminder of what is wrong with American politics today, this story is a great reminder,” Rubio told Florida news outlets. “What we’re running against is this sort of attitude that we have people in Washington who are willing to compromise principles in order to acquire power. People are willing to do anything to get elected and do a deal with anyone to get elected.”

He may not need the boost. A Maxon-Dixon poll out Friday showed Rubio with a big lead, coming in with 45 percent. Independent candidate Charlie Crist had 28 percent and Meek had 21 percent.

"There is simply no mathematical formula by which Crist or Meek can approach Rubio's 45 percent support level,” pollster Brad Coker wrote in his analysis.

Rubio was looking to benefit from reports the former president asked Meek to withdraw from the race and throw his support to Crist, in order to keep Rubio from winning the seat. Meek had agreed but then changed his mind because he didn’t want to look like a quitter, according to the report.

Both Clinton and Meek denied that Meek was ever going to drop out.

"I didn't ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would. I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless,” Clinton said in a statement Friday.

Crist says there was a deal.

"I do know that it was happening. We've had several conversations and discussions with people close to the former president and it was in play,” he told Fox News.

Meek, however, says it was Crist who asked him to drop his campaign.

"[Clinton] never asked me to get out of the race. I never told him I was getting out of the race," Meek said on CNN. "Gov. Crist talked to me about getting out of the race. I recommend to the governor that he should consider getting out of the race."

The back-and-forth of who-asked-who-to-do-what has thrust the Florida Senate race back into the spotlight after most observers brushed off its competitiveness, predicting Rubio will win.

It also brought back stories about the rocky relationship between Meek and the Democratic Party. Long before the Clinton reports broke, there had been speculation Meek would drop out in order to boost Crist’s candidacy.

Meek always denied those early reports he would exit the race, charging the Crist camp with starting them.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination The Memo: Teens rankle the right with gun activism Dems to party: Go on offense with Trump’s alleged affairs MORE (D-Nev.) had to downplay reports about a phone call he placed to Crist shortly after the governor announced his independent bid. And while President Obama has backed Meek, the White House's level of commitment has been repeatedly questioned throughout the campaign. Still, Obama and Vice President Biden appeared in photo ops with Crist when they made separate trips to Florida to examine the fallout from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Biden has campaigned for Meek and Obama hugged him and bought him a sandwich during a Florida fundraising trip.

Meek, a four-term congressman, wasn’t helped when Crist said he’d spoken to Clinton aides and “several people” at the White House about a deal.

“We've had several conversations and discussions with people close to the former president and it was in play,” Crist told Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren.

Crist declined to offer specific names of White House staffers he spoke to, saying only: "There were several people that I spoke with.”

The Florida governor came under some fire for whatever role he played in the intrigue.

“He’s the most ambitious man I’ve ever met in politics. He believes in absolutely nothing other than — what’s the next step for him in a path,” former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) said about Crist during an interview on CNBC.

The White House has yet to comment on the situation, but Clinton’s statement praised Meek.

“We did talk last week following a rally in Orlando about the race and its challenges,” Clinton said.

“I still believe he could be the best Senator to help Florida and America emerge from the current crisis and build a growing middle class economy,” the statement noted.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHannity snaps back at 'Crybaby' Todd: 'Only conservatives have to disclose relationships?' Chuck Todd lashes out at Fox, defends wife in radio interview Overnight Defense: Trump steps up fight with California over guard deployment | Heitkamp is first Dem to back Pompeo for State | Dems question legality of Syria strikes MORE reiterated the party’s support for Meek in an interview on NPR.

“Kendrick has been a great member of Congress and we’re fully behind him,” Kaine said.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPoll: Menendez has 17-point lead over GOP challenger Russian attacks on America require bipartisan response from Congress Justice Dept intends to re-try Menendez in corruption case MORE (D-N.J.) also said the party is backing Meek.

“I and the DSCC have supported Kendrick Meek since he got in the race, when there was a Democratic opponent to him in the primary. We are with him today. He's in to the end,” Menendez said in a Wall Street Journal webcast.

It’s not the first time Clinton or the White House has been charged with interfering in a Senate race.

Clinton admitted to feeling out Joe Sestak about the possibility of dropping out of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, which Sestak won; Sestak says he was offered an appointment to a White House commission. The White House confirmed it followed up with Colorado Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff about a job application he filed – after Romanoff decided to mount a primary challenge to Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetOvernight Health Care: GOP pushes stiff work requirements for food stamps | Johnny Isakson opens up about family's tragic loss to opioids | Republicans refuse to back vulnerable Dem's opioids bill | Dems offer new public option plan Lawmakers discuss Latino education gap The Hill's Morning Report: Hannity drawn into Cohen legal fight MORE (D-Colo); Bennet won. And there were reports the White House helped clear the primary field for Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Meek rode a wave of momentum Friday morning following the report, which first appeared in Politico. His flagging candidacy benefited from more attention than it's received in weeks. He did several TV interviews about the story and played a defiant role.

"I'm not playing politics. I'm not doing back-room deals," he said on CNN. "I'm running for the United States Senate."

He claimed momentum, saying that his website "blew up" with an influx of traffic. And his Twitter account has increased its activity with tweets like: "I will NOT back down & NOT sell out the people of Florida."

It remains to be seen what the impact will be, if any, on voter turnout.

"The Democratic civil war may make it tougher to mobilize party turnout, especially in the African-American community, where the slight of Meek may cause some black voters to sit on their hands next Tuesday," Coker noted in his analysis of the Mason-Dixon poll.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in a strongly-worded statement released Thursday night, said the incident would send a "chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans."

“President Clinton’s actions to have Kendrick Meek withdraw from the campaign sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans. One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race – in the 11th hour – a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek," Steele said.

Shane D’Aprile, Michael O’Brien and Sam Youngman contributed to this article