JEFFREY BROWN: Now to campaign politics, and to Florida, where a high-profile Senate race has sparked some soul-searching among Democrats. Gwen Ifill has the story. It's part of our Vote 2010 coverage.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D-Fla.)senatorial candidate: How you doing? Hi. Good to see you.
GWEN IFILL: Florida's three-way U.S. Senate race is turning into a two-way shoot-out between Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek...
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: I would appreciate your vote.
WOMAN: Oh, yes.
GWEN IFILL: ... and Republican-turned-independent Governor Charlie Crist.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (I-Fla.), senatorial candidate: Yes, good to see you again. How are you, brother?
GWEN IFILL: The duel has divided Democrats here by geography and race, but mostly by political pragmatism.
MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.), senatorial candidate: I'm glad to have been here with you.
GWEN IFILL: The question for both camps: Who can beat surging Republican Marco Rubio?
MARCO RUBIO: You have to be running for the right reasons to begin with.
GWEN IFILL: While Meek and Crist concentrate on forcing the other from the race, Rubio, who's led in every published poll since August, has been embraced by his party.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: One, two, three.
GWEN IFILL: The Democratic split is stark in populous Palm Beach County, where influential Democrats, like County Commission Chairman Burt Aaronson abruptly abandoned their Democratic nominee this week.
BURT AARONSON, commissioner, Palm Beach County, Florida: The dilemma is this. Visualize us being on a boat. That boat is sinking. We have a chance to get into a lifeboat. We may not be going to the destination that we were supposed to go with, with the ship, but we will get to some destination. And, certainly, I think this is all about the Democrats not having Marco Rubio as our senator.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I love the purple.
GWEN IFILL: These Democrats are betting on Crist to become a sort of de facto Democrat once he gets to Washington, a political calculation that infuriates the actual Democrat.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: I'm not going to let one or two local elected officials decide what hundreds of thousands of primary voters already decided. They're talking, if I had to fight with a toothpick and I had to back myself in the corner, I'm going to start poking people with it.
That's just -- if I was at 1 percent, I would be in this race. But I'm not at 1 percent. I'm not at 10 percent. And I'm not at some miserable percent. There's only a few points between the governor and I. I mean, so, the way I look at it, I'm not running for second. I'm running to win.
GWEN IFILL: The latest poll has Rubio at 44 percent, Crist at 30 percent, and Meek at 22 percent. Florida Congressmen Alcee Hastings, who remains loyal to Meek, says lukewarm local and national Democrats risk alienating black voters.
REP. ALCEE HASTINGS (D-Fla.): And you tell every Democrat, including Barack Obama, if they cannot find reason to support Kendrick Meek, then, when they run, I will find a reason not to support them. It's just that simple.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
REP. ALCEE HASTINGS: Charlie Crist got run out or ran out of his party. Now he's over here destroying mine. And I'm hearing from Democrats that Kendrick can't win. Well, the immediate answer to that is, if you say he can't and you won't vote for him, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
GWEN IFILL: President Obama has recorded an ad targeted to black radio.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, please join me in supporting Kendrick Meek for Senate, because, if we work together, he will win.
MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, Kendrick Meek.
GWEN IFILL: But the national party has largely decided to spend its money elsewhere. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says the Democratic Party is splitting itself in two, as Rubio coasts.
SUSAN MACMANUS, political science professor, University of South Florida: It is interesting that, for all of the talk about the schisms within the Republican Party, the biggest schism in Florida right now is within the Democratic Party over this U.S. Senate seat.
GWEN IFILL: There will be huge repercussions, no matter who wins in
Florida. Meek would be the state's first African-American senator, Crist its first independent. And Marco Rubio has been embraced by Tea Party and mainstream supporters alike as the Republican Party's fastest rising new star.
GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-La.): Please give a great welcome Marco
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: While the Democrats slug away at each other, Rubio wears the front-runner's mantle, appearing this week in Tampa with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in a room full of former Crist voters.
MIKE SWITZER, Florida voter: I did vote for him for governor. I am conservative. I am Republican. And I tend to vote for Republicans. When he walked away from the party, no, I'm no longer tempted to vote for him, particularly when he started flip-flopping on issues as well.
GWEN IFILL: Polls show the vast majority of Republican likely voters lining up behind Rubio.
MARCO RUBIO: The campaigns who can inspire people are always the ones that are going to win. The campaigns that have the wind in their back in terms of the issues and the motivation and enthusiasm are the ones that are going to win. Clearly, the president benefited from that in 2008, and I think there are candidates who oppose the president's agenda that are going to benefit from that in 2010.
GWEN IFILL: Some optimistic Democrats still hope Crist will sink and Meek will rise.
MARK ALAN SIEGEL, democratic chairman, Palm Beach County, Florida: Once those two lines cross, all the Democrats who have been taking counsel of their fears are going to be able to come home and vote for the person who really represents their views.
GWEN IFILL: But time, others say, is slipping away.
DIANA DEMAREST, Florida voter: I kind of fought this thing for a few
weeks, and I paid attention to the polls. And, in my estimation, Meek can't win.
WOMAN: For 31 years.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: Where did you teach?
GWEN IFILL: Crist, meanwhile, is counting on crossover voters.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I love teachers, love you. That's why I vetoed that bill.
GWEN IFILL: Running as an independent, he has sided with teachers unions, reversed his opposition to gay adoption, and vetoed anti-abortion legislation.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I think it's very important to appeal to commonsense Republicans, commonsense Democrats, commonsense independents. My two opponents are partisan, party candidates for the U.S. Senate. And they're sort of locked into those talking points from party bosses.
GWEN IFILL: He joined Palm Beach Democrats this week to break ground at a housing development paid for with $27 million of the Obama administration's federal stimulus package.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: When you go independent, I'm really running against the system more than anybody in this race is. And, when you do that, it is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. There has been a parachute, and it's the people.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: How is the phone bank going?
GWEN IFILL: Meek discounts polls that show him trailing, in part
because many of those same polls predicted he would lose the Democratic primary to billionaire businessman Jeff Greene. Crist, he said, is the one who should be pressured to drop out.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: We're continuing to move throughout this state. We're winning votes every day. And, like I said, he needs to man up and leader up and -- and run his own race. Don't try to come over and eat off of my plate, because I'm 6'3'', 250 pounds, and a former state trooper.
I'm standing in this race making sure that middle-class families have a voice, making sure that we win this race.
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: I have all the respect in the world for the congressman. But, if people vote for Kendrick Meek, they're really giving the race to Marco Rubio. And they are the kind of M&M boys. If you vote for Meek, Marco wins.
GWEN IFILL: Rubio, the 39-year-old son of Cuban immigrants and a former speaker of the Florida House, watches calmly from the sidelines. Crist, he says, is unreliable.
MARCO RUBIO: People see it for what it is. It's political opportunism. And if ever there was a year when people are not looking for that, it's this one. People are tired of being told one thing on the campaign trail, and then, when people get to Washington, they become something else.
GWEN IFILL: Meek, he says, is reliable, but wrong.
MARCO RUBIO: I think he's a supporter of the direction Washington takes our country. You know, his voting record is identical to Nancy Pelosi's. And I'm pretty confident that Floridians don't want Nancy Pelosi to be their next U.S. senator. But I respect the fact that he knows what he believes in, and he's campaigning on that.
GWEN IFILL: Rubio finds a receptive audience among Florida's most conservative voters.
DIANNE DLOUGHY, Florida voter: It used to be, if you went into a group, you were afraid to say you were conservative, because the liberals might beat you over the head. But now we just -- I think we're -- we're finding our own and speaking out.
GWEN IFILL: And Marco Rubio is your voice?
DIANNE DLOUGHY: Absolutely.
GWEN IFILL: Battles lines were drawn in a recent debate.
Crist vs. Rubio:
GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: You haven't been drinking the Kool-Aid, my friend. You have been drinking too much tea. And it's just wrong.
GWEN IFILL: Rubio vs. Crist:
MARCO RUBIO: And Governor Crist was a Republican six months ago. And now he's changed his position on virtually every issue, because he's trying to take away those Democratic votes from Kendrick Meek.
GWEN IFILL: Meek vs. Crist:
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: Charlie Crist stands on a wet paper box as it relates to the issues that he stands for, because you don't know where he is.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: You do what you're supposed to do. You get the word out.
GWEN IFILL: Meek visited six black churches last Sunday, trying to rouse Obama Democrats.
REP. KENDRICK MEEK: I need you to stand up like you have never stood up before. That's what I need you to do. I need you to prove the pundits wrong.
GWEN IFILL: But midterm elections don't move voters like presidential elections, especially in Florida this year, when there are so many choices.