Former President Bill Clinton’s visit to Miami harkens back to a fight among Democrats over the 2010 Senate race

The last time former President Bill Clinton got involved in a statewide race in Florida was 2010 when he reportedly sought to help Charlie Crist win the race by nudging former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek out of the race.

09/05/2014 8:00 AM

09/04/2014 6:04 PM

When Bill Clinton strides onto the stage Friday night in Miami to campaign alongside Charlie Crist, he’ll bring with him unmatched starpower. But as he helps Democrats rally around their nominee for governor, Clinton’s presence is a reminder of one of the rawest episodes in modern Florida political history.

How long it seems ago that Clinton was a lead protagonist in an effort to force Kendrick Meek out of the 2010 U.S. Senate race, a desperate gambit to lift Crist, who was running as a newly minted independent, forced to leave the GOP due to a surging Marco Rubio.

Crist, had he beaten Rubio fair and square as a Republican in 2010, would probably be enjoying his own presidential buzz at this moment instead of seeking a return to the office his ambition forced him to flee.

While some of the 2010 saga has been documented, other parts have not. Washington Democrats turned on Meek, leaving it up to Clinton to deliver the message, not only because they feared losing their congressional majority. They feared too what Rubio would become.

“The White House was worried that Rubio would be the vice presidential nominee — and there goes Florida,” said a Democratic strategist from Florida who was close to the situation.

Other Democratic sources have confirmed that account, or the general notion that the telegenic, bilingual son of Cuban immigrants was threat in 2012 and beyond. “It was just a view that was taking hold,” said another Democrat close to the race.

Rubio wasn’t selected as Mitt Romney’s running mate, of course, and he’s been brought down a notch in recent years. But he remains a formidable force in the Republican Party.

The strategist from Florida said the Meek takedown scenario unfolded like this: While there was a burst of excitement around Meek after he won the Democratic primary, national leaders realized Florida would be a financial drain in an attempt to protect the Senate majority. They calculated it would be best to back Crist, who can raise money and had crossover appeal.

National Democrats leaned on the state party to consider backing Crist. Meek was a true Democrat, local officials argued, and he had fought his way to a resounding primary victory against billionaire Jeff Greene.

“Charlie Crist was on Larry King and you could just see, as the returns were coming in, the color evaporate from his face,” the Democrat said. “If it was a tight race and Kendrick just squeaked by, then it’s an easier sell to say, ‘Kendrick, you’re barely the nominee, let’s end this.’ ”

Undeterred, the out-of-state Democratic forces pleaded with the state party to at least stop attacking Crist and focus on Rubio. Friction deepened between Democratic camps.

Enter the Big Dog.

Clinton was no stranger to Meek.

Meek and Clinton bonded in the 1992 presidential campaign, when Meek was a Florida state trooper providing security for the visiting governor from Arkansas. In 2008, the black congressman and son of a civil rights leader, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, endorsed Clinton's wife, Hillary Clinton, over Barack Obama. Meek remained loyal to the Clintons even as the former president made remarks in South Carolina some considered racist.

But in 2010, despite appearing at events in October for Meek, Clinton carried out the brutal job. “Some people say he asked Kendrick to get out and I know that’s not true,” the strategist said, insisting Clinton only laid out options. The move came way late, just as early voting was about to begin.

Meek may have waffled on what to do but eventually stuck to his guns. This delighted Rubio’s team, which eagerly endorsed a series of debates. The more the better. Meek had long been friendly with Rubio, even as they disagreed philosophically, and shared a view that Crist lacked any shred of conviction.

So Crist and Meek duked it out in televised debates. Crist fought off camera, too, courting teachers and unions. “He kept eating off our plate,” the Democrat said, “Groups looking for the silver lining, sought the silver lining. It became a food fight in our party.”

Crist plied Meek himself, bizarrely, at one point seeking him out at an AIPAC gathering and asking him to accept a Christian cross and pray over it. Hours earlier, at 5 a.m. Crist left a voice message on Meek’s cell.

"I'll call you later this morning and see if we can work out a time to get together, just you and me,” Crist said in the recording, adding he was returning a missed call from Meek.

"Take care, buddy. Appreciate it."

Rubio won the three-way race with 49 percent of the vote. So born was a star, who ironically faced his own intra-party effort to leave the race. The preferred GOP candidate back in the pre-tea party fever: Crist.

This Friday, having overpowered another Democrat for the right to take on Gov. Rick Scott, Crist will take the stage with the man who tried to pull off a miracle for him once before.

Crist in announcing the rally to supporters said he he was “over the moon.”

Clinton, Crist campaign rally in Miami

Former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to stump at a campaign rally for Florida gubernatorial candidate Charile Crist on Friday about 6 p.m. near downtown Miami.

Clinton is scheduled to be at Crist's campaign rally Friday at Miami's J.W. Marriott Marquis on Biscayne Blvd

Members of the public wishing to attend the rally can get more information at the following website: www.charliecrist.com/bill-clinton-sept5 .

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