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Mr. Crist coming to Washington?

May 12, 2009 |  9:23 am

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist welcomes President Obama at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers Feb. 10, 2009  

Florida's popular Gov. Charlie Crist made it official today: he's running for the Senate instead of for reelection next year, to replace retiring Republican Mel Martinez.

No sooner had the 52-year-old governor thrown his hat in the ring than Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Cornyn endorsed his candidacy, a sign of GOP desperation to keep the seat in Republicans hands in a Senate where Democrats are already looking at a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority. (Assuming Minnesota's Al Franken ever gets sworn in.)

With Florida tilting Democratic -- Barack Obama carried the state by a 2% margin, the first Democrat to win there since Bill Clinton's second-term victory in 1996 -- Crist's announcement also throws local politics into a tizzy.

For one thing, it gives Democrats their best shot at winning the governor's office since....

...Jeb Bush took over in 1998. In fact, the Crist announcement prompted CQ Politics to change its ratings on both the governor’s and Senate races. The Senate seat-up, rated a Tossup, is now rated Leans Republican. The governor’s race, assumed to be Crist’s for the asking had he decided to seek a second term, is now rated Tossup. (See our news video below.)

As dominoes fall from one office to the next, three officials in Florida's Cabinet are now expected to run for governor, leaving wide open races for chief financial officer, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. "We are going to have a tumultuous, chaotic election season,” predicted Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Crist is popular with the general electorate. As the Associated Press put

it, "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."

But before arriving in Washington, before being anointed as a contender in the 2012 GOP presidential sweepstakes, before being positioned as the fresh face of the Republican Party, Crist first has to win the primary. And in Florida, where the primaries are closed to independents and only Republicans can vote, Crist may have a tough race against Marco Rubio, the very conservative former speaker of the Florida House.

One weapon in Rubio's arsenal is the photo above, taken during a town hall meeting in Fort Myers on Feb. 10, when Crist became one of the few Republicans in the country (remember House Republicans stood in lock-step against it) to endorse President Obama's $787-billion stimulus package. Any Republican who jumps on the Obama bandwagon will have trouble with Republican primary voters.

Still, national Republicans are putting their money on Crist.

"We think highly of Marco and believe he has a bright future," one GOP official told NBC's First Read, "but Crist is the GOP's best hope of keeping this seat in the GOP column."

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images