WASHINGTON, April 30, 2010 -- Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to drop out of the Republican Party and run as an independent shows that the GOP is increasingly moving further to the right and blocking out those who don't fit in that mold, White House senior adviser David Axelrod said today.
"I think it's interesting. Crist was three years ago sort of a golden boy of the Republican Party, vice presidential possibility," Axelrod told "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos today. "They recruited him for this Senate race and now he's been run out of the party. It really speaks to the way the party is moving to the right."
Crist announced Thursday that he is dropping out of the Florida Republican Senate primary race to run as an independent.
"My decision to run for the United States Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state, than it does about me," Crist said.
"For me it's never been about doing what's easy," he said at a press conference. "It's about doing what is right for the people first."
"Unfortunately our political system is broken," he added. "I haven't supported an idea because it's a Republican idea or it's a Democratic idea. I support ideas that I believe are good ideas for the people."
The primary is not until Aug. 24, but polls showed Crist badly trailing former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite.
Republican Senate leaders immediately slammed his decision, demanding Crist return money they donated to his campaign.
"Elections are about trust and frankly, it is unclear whether Governor Crist deserves any," said a joint statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "We plan to put our resources and support behind Marco Rubio."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the NRSC, wants $20,000 back -- $10,000 from Cornyn's Alamo Leadership PAC and $10,000 donated by the NRSC.
"In addition to seeing his coffers depleted from having to return money, I think his ability to raise money for the Senate will be dramatically down and I can tell you that we will unify behind Speaker Rubio and we will do everything we can to hold onto that seat in November," Cornyn said. "I believe that we will get that seat."
Crist's pollsters, the Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies, also resigned from his campaign.
"Governor Crist's decision has been ceaselessly speculated on in recent weeks. Despite his difficulties in the Republican primary, we were loyally working for him as long as he was a Republican. With his announcement that he is not running as a Republican, we will no longer be involved," said Glen Bolger, a partner in the firm who worked with the Crist campaign.
Some question whether Crist's switch is a warning sign for moderate Republicans across the country running for reelection this year.
But Rubio told ABC News in an exclusive interview Thursday that he thought Crist's move had more to do with political convenience than ideology.
"In fact this has nothing to do with ideas or principles or ideology, it's about quite frankly political convenience. It's about someone who wants to continue his career in politics and doesn't believe he can do that this year within the Republican party," Rubio said.
The move sets up a tight three-way race between Crist, Rubio, and likely Democratic nominee Rep. Kendrick Meeks.
Crist was once a rising star of the GOP -- much as his challenger Rubio is now. The Republican Party in turn made him one of the most powerful political figures in Florida, but he's since lost that support.
Many say the cause of the governor's slipping Republican support was Crist's embrace of President Obama -- literally.
In February 2009, the president visited Florida to promote the economic stimulus program, and invited Crist -- who supported it -- to appear onstage. After Crist finished his remarks, he and the president exchanged a quick embrace that Republican critics quickly seized upon.
More damaging than the embrace itself was Crist's support of the president's stimulus plan, blasted by many Republicans.
An April 13th Quinnipiac public opinion poll in Florida asked people how they would vote in a three-way race with Crist as an independent. The poll showed a tight contest: Crist with 32 percent, Rubio with 30, and Meek with 24.
ABC News' Teddy Davis, David Chalian and Gary Langer contributed to this report.