The controversy over whether former President Bill Clinton urged Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek to drop out of the Florida Senate race to help an Independent win has given a last minute issue to Republicans, who called the report an example of Washington's penchant for backroom deals.
Clinton issued a statement this afternoon denying he asked Meek to leave the race. The former president's aides confirmed to ABC News and various other media outlets Thursday that the former president asked the Democrat twice to drop out while campaigning for him in the Sunshine state last weekend, as Politico first reported.
"We did talk last week following a rally in Orlando about the race and it's challenges. I didn't ask Kendrick to leave the race, nor did Kendrick say that he would," Clinton said in a statement today. "I told him that how he proceeds was his decision to make and that I would support him regardless."
"I still believe he could be the best senator to help Florida and America emerge from the current crisis and build a growing middle class economy," Clinton added.
Meek has vehemently denied that he ever agreed to get out of the race or that Clinton encouraged him to drop out and endorse Charlie Crist, former Republican turned independent candidate.
It was Crist who called both Meek's campaign and Clinton to ask the Democratic candidate to drop out, the Democratic congressman said.
Meek is trailing well behind Crist and Republican challenger Marco Rubio in the polls. The latest Quinnipac poll, released Thursday, shows Rubio leading Crist by 42-35 percent, with Meek trailing well behind at 15 percent among likely voters.
Even if Meek dropped out of the race, Crist would likely not have gotten enough votes to propel him to victory this close to the election, given the wide margin between the two candidates, experts say.
But the episode has given Republicans a fresh issue in the final days of the campaign.
The GOP has assailed the revelation as an example of backroom deals among Democrats and "politics as usual."
"If you ever needed a reminder of what's wrong with American politics today, this story is a reminder," Rubio told reporters today. This is a reminder of "what got us bad public policies, this is what put America on the wrong track."
"People are willing to do a deal with anyone to get elected and do a deal with anyone to stay elected," he added. "I'm running against that kind of stuff and I can't wait to get to Washington to get rid of that stuff."
Rubio is also seeking to link President Obama to the controversy. An e-mail sent out to his supporters asks, "What specifically did the White House know about this deal? Who at the White House did Crist talk to?"
Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele on Thursday went a step further and inserted a racial element into the debate.
"President Clinton's actions to have Kendrick Meek withdraw from the campaign sends a chilling signal to all voters, but especially African Americans," Steele said in a statement. "One can only imagine the response if Republican leadership tried to force out of the race -- in the 11th hour -- a qualified black candidate like Kendrick Meek."
Kendrick Meek Says He Will Not Drop Out of Florida Senate Race
Clinton was one of Meek's most high-profile endorsers and headlined 11 fundraisers for him, according to local reports.
But Meek wasn't able to garner the kind of support from independents and African Americans that Democrats had hoped, giving Rubio and Crist comfortable leads over the Democrat.
The former president is on a whirlwind campaign tour the next few days to help fledgling Democrats, but he won't be making any stops in Florida.
Obama recorded a radio ad for Meek earlier this month, although he last campaigned for the candidate in person in August.
The controversy brings a new headache for Democrats facing tough races and a dim prospect of losing the House and a considerable number of Senate seats next week.
The discussion is "tinged with a lot of suggestions about race and so that's kind of a problem for Democrats right now," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the Cook Report. "The other thing that makes it unusual and thus a little controversial is that it's not like they were asking him to step aside for another Democrat. They were asking him to step aside for a guy who a year ago was a Republican. That complicates things a little bit."
Meek is standing his ground and doesn't plan on dropping out of the race.
"Charlie Crist is a Republican. And he became an Independent, and he is against comprehensive health care reform, he is against a woman's right to choose. He is for offshore oil drilling," Meek said on "Good Morning America" today. "I don't see myself handing anything to anybody. It is not my prerogative to do that."