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Next stop for Crist: U.S. Senate?

By BETH REINHARD

breinhard@MiamiHerald.com

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to announce Tuesday that he is running for the U.S. Senate, setting off a high-stakes game of musical chairs that will completely overhaul the top echelon of state government in 2010.

Crist’s former chief-of-staff, George LeMieux, confirmed late Sunday that the governor will make an announcement at a “low-key’’ event Tuesday in Tallahassee.

LeMieux and Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, have been dropping hints about Crist’s decision for the past week.

“He loves being governor, but he also realizes that Florida’s problems have become national problems,” LeMieux said.

Asked how the governor will serve out the 19 months left of his term if he is running for the Senate, LeMieux added: “No matter what decision the governor makes, he will be, as he has been, focused on his job.”

Crist will immediately become the man to beat in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez.

Crist will face former House Speaker Marco Rubio, of Miami, in the Republican primary, but is likely to try to avoid a divisive battle. Rubio has positioned himself as the more conservative candidate.

“He is the happy warrior,” LeMieux said of Crist.

Crist’s announcement is expected to be followed by a series of high-profile campaign launches. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, and Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, are likely to announce bids for governor, triggering campaigns for their own newly opened seats.

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