MIAMI — Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek on Thursday denied reports that he agreed to drop out of the Florida Senate race under pressure from former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton last week while campaigning in Florida tried to talk Meek into quitting, and the congressman agreed twice to drop out and endorse independent candidate Gov. Charlie Crist, Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna confirmed to The Associated Press. The story was first reported by Politico.
Meek, though, vehemently denied that Clinton ever asked him to withdraw.
"The press report from Politico that is out there is inaccurate – at best," Meek said during a hastily called news conference in front of screaming supporters Thursday night. "President Clinton and I are good friends. He's continuing to be a supporter of this campaign. Any rumor or any statement by anyone that says that I made a decision to get out of the race is inaccurate."
Clinton acknowledged during an interview aired on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 that Meek wanted to discuss the possibility of quitting, so they did. He did not say he asked Meek to quit.
"I said in the end, you know, he would have to do what he thought was right. He'd have to do what he felt right about," Clinton said.
As for the specifics of the conversation, Clinton said that would have to stay between the two men, who have been friends for years.
The idea of Meek dropping out, so that voters in his camp would kick their support to Crist, is not new. Polls show Meek badly trailing Crist and front-runner Republican Marco Rubio and rumors had been swirling for weeks that Meek might be asked to drop out.
Experts say Crist, who, when trailing in the polls to Rubio, bolted the Republican Party to run for the Senate as an independent, would need the Democrats who are backing Meek to have any shot at winning.
"Charlie Crist truly will say and do anything to get elected and hold on to power," Rubio senior strategist Todd Harris said in a statement. "Secret deals to trade away principles for power is already the problem in Washington, it's not the solution. This is simply politics as usual which is exactly what voters across the country are emphatically rejecting this election."
Clinton has been campaigning all over the country, trying to keep the U.S. House and Senate in Democrats' hands.
During primary season, the White House was embarrassed when it became known that it enlisted Clinton to try to ease Rep. Joe Sestak out of Pennsylvania's Senate primary with a job offer. The White House released a report describing the offer that was intended to clear a path for Sen. Arlen Specter to win the Democratic nomination.
Sestak beat Specter and Clinton was campaigning for him Thursday.
Republicans instantly sought to gain from the episode surrounding Meek.
"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," RNC Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement.
Clinton downplayed that, saying of course the Republicans want Rubio to win.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earlier this month said that Meek cannot win the race and instead endorsed Crist. He called the Florida Senate race the most critical in the country and urged voters to combat what he calls the radical tea party movement by voting for Crist.
Crist's camp said the Politico report was accurate, and that Crist "is the one candidate who can defeat tea party extremist Marco Rubio and deliver bipartisan results for Florida in Washington."
Many Florida voters have already cast early and absentee ballots, so even if Meek dropped out it might have only a marginal effect. His name also would remain on the Election Day ballot.
Meek said he saw no advantage to withdrawing and defended Clinton.
"He's a friend. He will always be a friend. I count on his counsel," Meek said. "We talk about issues all the time, but to say that he asked me is totally false."
Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Liz Sidoti in Washington contributed to this report.