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Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed front-runner in Florida's Senate election. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed front-runner in Florida's Senate election. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

America's new political nowhere: The centre Add to ...

Caught between the Tea Partiers who rail against too much government and a "professional left" that yearns for more, Barack Obama has become a victim of the disappearing centre in American politics.

Next up, Charlie Crist?

It looks that way as the once popular Florida governor, who quit the Republican Party to run as an independent candidate in the Nov. 2 Senate race, finds himself lost in a political no man's land.

Since abandoning the GOP in April to avoid losing the party's primary to Tea Party star Marco Rubio, Mr. Crist has gone from being the front runner in the Senate race to a distant second spot in a three-way contest.

Instead of scaring voters off with his hard-right positions on immigration, taxes and government spending, Mr. Rubio has hit a sweet spot in public opinion. Should he win, the sharp and determined 39-year-old son of Cuban exiles will immediately zoom up the list of presidential maybes.

Somehow Mr. Crist's plan to corral moderate Republicans and Democrats alike in a centrist coalition hasn't worked. His campaign has run up against a general shift to the right and the refusal of core Democrats to abandon their own true-blue candidate for a less doctrinaire independent.

"Everyone knows what Charlie Crist stands for - which is whatever the most recent public opinion poll is," University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith noted wryly. "For some people, that's okay."

There just doesn't appear to be enough of them. Recent polls put Mr. Rubio ahead of Mr. Crist by an average of 11 percentage points, while Democrat Kendrick Meek trails in third place.

Mr. Crist, 54, made a fatal bet early on that the Democratic nominee would not be Mr. Meek at all, but Jeff Greene, a party outsider who got rich on credit default swaps. Polls showed core Democrats would flee en masse to him if Mr. Greene became the official party candidate.

Mr. Crist did everything to make them feel welcome. As governor, he vetoed a state bill that overhauled teachers' tenure and based their pay on student performance. He disallowed another law that would have required women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound of their fetus first.

The moves won Mr. Crist, who had previously emphasized his personal opposition to abortion, praise on the left. But they also reinforced his weathervane image with voters.

On Tuesday night, in the fourth of a gruelling six televised debates scheduled before election day, Mr. Meek accused Mr. Crist of reversing his position on offshore oil drilling - an always dubious proposition in this tourist-dependent state, but one that has become a non-starter with Floridians since the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"You were there with Sarah Palin a couple of years ago saying 'Drill baby drill,' " Mr. Meek charged. Mr. Crist denied ever uttering the phrase, allowing Mr. Meek to one-up him with: "You were clapping."

His willingness to straddle the partisan divide was supposed to be one of Mr. Crist's best selling features. But it has been mostly used against him in this race. Republicans have never forgiven him for supporting Mr. Obama's $816-billion (U.S.) stimulus bill, an endorsement fatefully immortalized in a used-to-death clip showing the two embracing.

Mr. Crist's best hope for turning the race around lies in persuading Mr. Meek, a 44-year-old black congressman from Miami, to drop out. But with Bill Clinton campaigning for him this week, Mr. Meek does not appear to be going anywhere. Indeed, the party needs him to stay put.

"Being an African-American at the top of the ticket, he is going to bring out core Democratic voters who will then cast a ballot for other Democrats on the ticket," Prof. Smith explained.

The principal beneficiary will be Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer and Democratic nominee for governor. She is in a tight race against Republican Rick Scott, a rich former health-care executive who has seen his chances diminished by a controversial corporate past.

Having tried with limited success to raid Mr. Meek's supporters, Mr. Crist is spending the final days going after Mr. Rubio's. In Tuesday's debate, Mr. Crist depicted the GOP nominee as "an extreme right-wing candidate" who would "punish" seniors by privatizing Social Security.

The fate of the federal retirement fund is a bigger election issue in Florida than anywhere else. Almost one-fifth of the state's 18 million permanent residents are seniors, but they account for at least one-quarter of likely voters.

While he does not favour changes to Social Security for existing seniors, Mr. Rubio insisted reform is inevitable for younger contributors to the fund. Current spending is unsustainable: "We're not going to fix that by sending typical politicians to Washington."

In Florida, as in the nation, it looks as though the centre cannot hold.

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