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Florida's Crist keeping Senate option open for 2010

It's not surprising for the governor of the fourth-most populous state to fly to Washington, especially when $800 billion in economic stimulus money is up for grabs.

But if that governor is the ambitious Charlie Crist and he attends the most exclusive parties in town and meets with the Senate's top recruiter, then Florida's political establishment goes into overdrive.

Crist didn't quell the hype Monday, insisting that he's ''focused on Florida'' but refusing to rule out running for Sen. Mel Martinez's seat in 2010. He's likely to keep everybody guessing until the annual legislative session ends May 1.

''Gov. Crist is in a very enviable position, with astronomical poll numbers, and because of that a lot of people in Washington and Florida are putting pressure on him to run for the U.S. Senate or for reelection as governor,'' said Washington lobbyist Dan Murphy of the BGR Group and a former Martinez aide. ``His popularity allows him to take his time in deciding his political future.''

The latest Quinnipiac University poll found Crist as popular in Florida as President Barack Obama, with 67 percent viewing him favorably despite the state's economic woes.

''He can have whatever job he wants,'' said Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who leads the Senate's recruiting arm, has been urging Crist to help the GOP retain the Senate seat and keep Democrats from a fillibuster-proof majority. Spokesman Brian Walsh said he was surprised their talks sparked so much interest.

''It strikes me as being more noteworthy if [Cornyn] had not spoken with the popular Republican governor of a state with an open, competitive Senate seat,'' he said.

The pitch from Crist's allies in Florida is different: Why become one of 100 and a junior member of the minority party when you can be top dog?

''There's no doubt that he has higher aspirations,'' said Sharon Day, the newly elected Republican National Committee secretary from Fort Lauderdale. ``Some people are pushing him to do things because it's good for them or good for the party . . . At the same time, I don't want to lose my governor.''

Crist's decision will take into account his political ambitions, pet issues and simple geography.

If he wants to run for president, history shows that a state capitol is a better launching pad. But the Senate, where members can run for an unlimited number of six-year terms, offers more job security and better hours.

''It really is two completely different jobs,'' said Justin Sayfie, a top aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush who co-hosted a Washington reception last week for Republican National Committee members. ``Being CEO of a state, you have more immediate ability to impact people's lives. As a senator, the issues are more national and international, and then there's being part of the Washington culture.''

NEW OUTLOOK

For the first time in his political career, Crist won't be mapping out his future alone. Washington would offer his new wife, former New York socialite Carole Crist, a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than Tallahassee.

Crist was invited Saturday to the Alfalfa Club dinner, a black-tie soiree open only to Washington elite. The night before, Crist attended a private dinner hosted by Fred Malek, John McCain's national finance chairman during the 2008 campaign.

Meantime, the potential Republican candidates for Senate are watching and waiting, while Democrats Kendrick Meek and Dan Gelber have already started running. U.S. Reps. Connie Mack and Vern Buchanan, both from southwest Florida, and former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami have all expressed interest.

''On the Republican side there are a lot more moving parts,'' Rubio said. ``I think there's a general agreement that if the governor wants to run for the U.S. Senate, everyone would step aside.''

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