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Florida Election Results Push Senate Contest into New Phase

Florida Senate Candidates: Marco Rubio (left), Kendrick Meek (center) and Charlie Crist (right) CBS/AP

Some quick thoughts on the primaries: When we circled this week on our calendars a while back, it looked to many like a time that could see some big upsets - in Florida and Arizona.

At the time, then-Republican Governor Charlie Crist was feeling intense pressure from Marco Rubio, while John McCain was facing a primary challenge back in Arizona -- both men coming under fire from the party's conservative base. No surprises emerged from those two states, as things have changed since, but last night does kick off a very interesting contest in Florida, and the surprise of August could turn out to come from Alaska instead.

First, in Florida, where Crist has of course long since left the GOP to run as an independent, and Kendrick Meek's win last night in the Democratic primary sets up what will be among the most compelling races of 2010.

Interactive Map: CBS News Election 2010 Race Ratings

Meek has trailed Rubio and Crist in hypothetical early general election polls. He may have been hampered, to some extent, by the fact that the early Rubio-Crist fight had taken up much of the political oxygen in the state earlier this year, and the oil spill in the Gulf kept Governor Crist in the news quite a bit too.

Going forward, to what extent will Meek's battle with (and win over) Jeff Greene help rally Democrats to his side? Primary voting can sometimes build a base of allegiance from voters who'll be supportive in November, too. With most vote in, Meek got 57 percent of Democrats who voted, to Greene's 31 percent. Democratic turnout - around 900,000, or under one in four registered Democrats in the state - was lighter than the 1.2 million Republicans who voted in the governor's contest on that side. (Some of that may be due to the large amount money spent in the latter race, or its perceived closeness.)

Now, in the general election contest, Meek's eye has to stay on those Democrats, as well as the independents candidates always seek. He'll have to defend against Crist's attempts to draw Democratic support as the newly-independent governor tries to put together a coalition without a partisan base of his own.

In recent polls it appears Crist has some appeal to Florida's Democrats, and he's drawn a handful in his past statewide races. One indicator going forward of how well Meek can defend his base could be whether Meek can draw closer to the other two in the polls, and in doing so guard against rank-and-file Democrats pondering any strategic choices that Crist has a better chance to win, as their alternative to Marco Rubio.

Rubio, for his part, sailed through to a GOP nomination, and over one million Florida Republicans marked his name. Rubio may need to defend some of his Republican base from Crist, too. That base, measured by past voting patterns of Republican candidates in Florida, even those who've come up short, is probably in the mid- to high- 30's or so. Rubio can probably count on that, and his math from there will be to pull some independent support to put him over the top in the 3-way field. There aren't as many non-partisan registrants in Florida as there are of either party (22 percent), but they'll be the centers of much attention now.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, waves to supporters at an election victory party with his wife Cindy McCain, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010, in Phoenix. AP

In Arizona, John McCain easily beat back his primary challenge. He started spending early and often, perhaps with the benefit of time through the summer as he took seriously a challenge in what was shaping up as a tough year for long-term officeholders. (Recall, for example, Blanche Lincoln and Michael Bennet had tough primary fights and Arlen Specter lost one.)

And in Alaska, votes are still being counted, as incumbent Lisa Murkowski was looking to fend off a challenge from Tea Party favorite and Sarah Palin-backed candidate Joe Miller.

It's a tight contest and now Miller has the edge of a couple thousand votes of those counted so far -- the number of ballots still outstanding is estimated now at 16,000, and it may be some days before we know how those turn out. Absentees need only be postmarked by Election Day. Stay tuned.

More election coverage:

Rick Scott Win: Bad News for Republicans?
Alaska Election Results Provide a Boost to Palin
Murkowski Trails in Tight Alaska Primary
Meek Wins Florida Democratic Senate Primary
McCain Wins GOP Nomination for Senate in Ariz.
Arizona Primary Results: Ben Quayle Wins

Anthony Salvanto
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Anthony Salvanto is CBS News Elections Director. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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