TALLAHASSEE -- Popular GOP Gov. Charlie Crist said today he will run for U.S. Senate instead of re-election next year, a possible stepping stone to a presidential bid and a welcome jolt for a struggling Republican Party desperate to keep Florida in its column.
"Here in Florida, we've shown that when we put people first and work together much can be accomplished, and I intend to bring that same approach to Washington," Crist said in a statement announcing his bid.
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 level since 1975. That popularity is credited to an unwavering optimism, bipartisan attitude and the projection of a sense that he cares.
The governor, whose ability to charm people is sometimes compared to Bill Clinton's, was on the list of possible 2008 GOP vice presidential candidates.
Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, quickly endorsed Crist. Senate Republicans are looking at the likelihood that the Democrats will hold a 60-seat majority in the Senate that can overcome GOP filibusters and help pass President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.
Democrats and independents hold 59 seats and would reach 60 if Al Franken wins a marathon recount in Minnesota.
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.
The governor kept his announcement low-key, choosing to issue a statement rather than hold a press conference, even though his official schedule had three media events related to other business. The idea is to project the image that he is focused on his current job rather than already campaigning.
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.
Crist will have a primary challenger. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio announced his candidacy last week and is expected to try to win over the GOP's conservative base, some of whom may not be happy with Crist's more moderate approach.
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.