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First thoughts: Mr. Independent

Charlie Crist's big day, big announcement, and big challenges… Crist's POTENTIAL independent move would create some unintended consequences (for FL GOV and Dem $$$)… Crist is just the latest top NRSC recruit to experience difficulty in this political environment… Cornyn responds to Kaine… Obama suggests the Senate will tackle energy before immigration… Obama's two-day swing through the Midwest a blueprint for his midterm travel in the fall?… Lincoln and Halter continue their war over the airwaves… And Strickland maintains lead over Kasich in OH.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Mr. Independent: Fourteen months ago, it started with a simple hug of President Obama. Today, it culminates in the governor of the fourth-largest state potentially leaving the Republican Party. (Yes, we say "potentially," because you never know what he's thinking after sleeping on his decision.) At 5:00 pm ET, Charlie Crist holds a campaign event in downtown St. Petersburg, where he's expected to announce that he's running as an independent for the U.S. Senate. The move would immediately begin a three-way general election that Crist, Marco Rubio (R), or Kendrick Meek (D) could end up winning. This will be, as ESPN might boast, an instant classic. Bracketing Crist's 5:00 pm ET event today, Rubio holds an event in Miami at 10:30 am to thank GOP volunteers, while Meek holds a press availability at 5:30 pm (and appears on MSNBC's "Hardball" before that).

*** Crist's three immediate challenges: Crist has a few challenges ahead of him running as an independent. First, how does he explain his past Sherman-esque denials that he'd run as an indie? In his debate with Rubio, he ruled out such a move ("That's right. I'm running as a Republican"). His campaign manager said the same thing in an email to reporters ("To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Gov. Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican. He will not run as an Independent or as a No Party Affiliation"). Second, by leaving the GOP, how does he build a staff and a GOTV operation? (We've heard whispers that several Republican operatives currently working for him would resign from his campaign if he leaves the party; they pretty much have no choice if they want to work in Republican politics in the future) Third, where does his money come from, and does he give back the money he's currently raised from Republicans?

*** Department of unintended consequences: What would Crist's departure from the GOP mean for Florida's gubernatorial contest? (Where would Crist's voters go, especially now that Republican Bill McCollum will now have to reject completely the man he's trying to replace?) Also, given the Democratic Party's finite resources, which Senate race will get less money and attention now that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the White House have no choice but to play in Florida now that the race is winnable? And consider this odd fact: The governors of the four largest states are not exactly popular in their home parties: Schwarzenegger (no Republican really embraces him anymore), Perry (establishment wing tried to oust him), Paterson (he's basically been ousted), and now Crist. Of course, this is more than a coincidence. In these tough economic times, it isn't easy being a governor. And while each of the four have had their own unique (and self-inflicted) political problems, all have figured out some way to survive.

*** Not a good time to be the establishment candidate: With Crist's likely move away from the GOP and toward an indie bid, it's a reminder of the struggles that some of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's top-tier recruits have experienced this cycle. In addition to Crist, you have Trey Grayson (who is trailing Tea Party favorite Rand Paul in KY), Carly Fiorina (who's behind Tom Campbell in CA), and Rob Simmons (who's losing right now to Linda McMahon). NRSC recruits Dan Coats in IN, Kelly Ayotte in NH, and Jane Norton in CO also are receiving tougher-than-expected primaries. Now the NRSC would contend -- rightly so -- that Republicans winning these contests in November is what truly matters. But unfortunately for the GOP, the party's likely nominees in Florida and probably Kentucky aren't slam dunks to win in November. Still, the NRSC is working with a map that's much more favorable than it was a year ago. "Republicans are on offense in nine seats -- 10 if Rossi gets in -- and Republicans won Massachusetts," a GOP source tells First Read.

*** Cornyn's response to Kaine: Also, the NRSC can't be blamed for recruiting candidates -- Crist, Grayson, etc. -- that would have been the party's stronger general-election candidates. But a year ago, it probably never imagined that the Tea Party and even forces like Jim DeMint and Red State would be influencing GOP primaries as much as they have. Speaking of the NRSC, Chairman John Cornyn is addressing reporters this morning at the Christian Science Monitor Breakfast, where he will respond to DNC Chairman Tim Kaine's CSM appearance yesterday. "I know many of you heard yesterday from the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and we've heard the Democrats talk in recent days about how they plan to run as the 'party of results,'" Cornyn is expected to say, according to an NRSC aide. "You might be surprised to hear this but I could not agree more with President Obama, Chairman Kaine, and their fellow Democrats that this election should be about that -- a referendum on the Democrats' agenda and the results of Democratic control in Washington."

*** Revenge of the independents? Here's one final thought about Crist's likely announcement today: He isn't the only independent this cycle. In Massachusetts, Tim Cahill (I) has thrown a wrench into the state's gubernatorial race that also features Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and Charles Baker (R). And in Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee (I) also is running for governor.

*** Energy before immigration? Yesterday in a rare chat with reporters aboard Air Force One, President Obama suggested that energy is probably next on the agenda, not immigration. Immigration, he said, "is a difficult issue. It generates a lot of emotions, and the politics are difficult. But I've been unwavering in saying what we need to do. I think that I can get a majority of Democrats to support a comprehensive approach. But I need some help on the Republican side." Obama then continued, "So it's a matter of political will. Now, look, we've gone through a very tough year, and I've been working Congress pretty hard. So I know there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial issue. There's still work that has to be done on energy. Midterms are coming up. So I don't want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem."

*** The campaigner-in-chief: While President Obama's two-day swing through the Midwest didn't get much national attention -- due to the Goldman Sachs news, as well as the Senate action on the financial reform legislation -- the reporters following him (including one of your authors here) got a pretty good sense that his stops in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois will serve as a blueprint of sorts for his travel during the midterm season. And remember this: If Obama's travel isn't getting much national pick-up, it's grabbing tons of local media and attention. In fact, even time he orders pie at a diner, it's not for the New York Times; it's for the local newspapers and TV stations.

*** Super Senate Tuesday: In Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln and Bill Halter are once again hitting each other over the airwaves. Lincoln has released a new TV ad blasting Halter over Social Security, while Halter has a radio ad whacking Lincoln for receiving money from Goldman Sachs.

*** More midterm news: In Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) maintains his lead over John Kasich (R), according to a new Quinnipiac poll. Strickland leads Kasich by six points (44%-38%). Obama's approval in Ohio, however, is at 45%.  

Countdown to IN, NC, and OH primaries: 5 days
Countdown to NE and WV primaries: 12 days
Countdown to AR, KY, OR and PA primaries, and PA-12 special: 19 days
Countdown to HI special election: 23 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 187 days

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