The eyes of the political world are trained on Florida this week as Republican Gov. Charlie Crist nears a decision about whether he will bolt the GOP and run for the United States Senate as an independent.
Republicans in Washington are nervous that an independent bid by Crist could potentially upset the chances of former Florida House Speaker, Republican Marco Rubio, a favorite of Tea Party activists who has gone from underdog to prohibitive frontrunner in Florida's GOP Senate primary.
"If Charlie puts his self preservation ahead of party, it has the potential to create an upset for the Democrats," a Republican operative, who was granted anonymity so he could be more candid in his assessment of the race, told ABC News.
Crist's current predicament is a remarkable turnabout for a Republican who harbors presidential ambitions and who began his Senate race as a heavy favorite. His standing began to unravel last year when he embraced President Obama's stimulus package.
If Crist leaves the GOP, he will become the second high-profile Republican to leave the party after backing the stimulus. Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, a long-time Republican senator, left the GOP one year ago and became a Democrat after this pro-stimulus vote made it all but impossible for him to win the 2010 GOP Senate primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey, R-Penn.
If Crist abandons the GOP, he has been put on notice that he could face major staff defections from operatives whose first commitment is to the Republican Party.
Crist may also be in jeopardy of losing some of his outside consultants: Crist pollster Glenn Bolger, for example, declined to comment when asked if he would work for Crist if he bolts the GOP.
The official line from Crist at this point is that he not yet made up his mind on an independent bid.
"I haven't made that decision yet," Crist told reporters earlier this week in Miami. When asked if voters wanted him to run as an independent, Crist said, "I'm not sure, and there is only one way to find out, and that's if we decide to do it."
Crist needs to make a decision by Friday because that is the state's deadline to officially file as a Republican or to enter the race without a party affiliation. He said on Tuesday, however, that he has set Thursday as a personal deadline to make up his mind.
Crist's decision is fraught with political considerations: Washington Republicans have warned him that his career in the GOP is over if he decides to run as an independent.
"He would lose all Republican support if he were to run as an independent," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell during a Sunday appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."
Crist is also being urged not to run as an independent by the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"I would never support it if he ran as an independent," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the NRSC chair, told Politico earlier this week. Cornyn is ready to get behind Rubio and work against Crist even though he had originally jumped at the opportunity to endorse Crist's primary bid.
Crist is a well-known entity in Florida politics and he has a sizable campaign war chest.
Republicans are warning, however, that he would suffer in November if he was not able to rely on the get-out-the-vote operation of the state Republican Party. He also would not be able to benefit from the grassroots infrastructure which will be created by the NRSC's investment in the state GOP's "Victory" operation.
Some inside of Crist's own camp became convinced that the Florida governor had given up on winning the Republican primary when he crossed GOP leaders by vetoing a merit-pay bill which had passed the Florida legislature.
Although the GOP establishment is bracing for Crist to run as an independent, Republican officials are still hoping that the governor will forego a 2010 Senate race and begin laying the groundwork to run in 2012 when Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., will be up for re-election.
The likely Democratic nominee for Senate in Florida, Rep. Kendrick Meek, is hoping that a three-person race will help him become more visible.
"The only thing that will change in our race if he does decide to run as an independent is accelerating the surfacing, the public surfacing of my candidacy," Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., told ABC News. "Then I will be included in all of the debates and I will be considered if you're going to pull the candidates together."
ABC News' Matt Loffman contributed to this report.