RUBIO ROLLING WITH REPUBLICAN RIGHT…. There’s something unique about the Crist-Rubio contest in Florida. The Republicans’ Senate primary — pitting Gov. Charlie Crist against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio — has become something of a proxy for the larger fight within the GOP, and the outcome is likely to have broader implications.

Crist, thought not too long ago to be invincible, is now in freefall. A Rasmussen poll released yesterday showed Rubio taking the lead, and the incumbent governor now trails by 12. 49% to 37%. (Keep in mind, Rubio hasn’t really been campaigning especially hard — he’s spent very little on advertising to date — suggesting the huge swing away from Crist is just the result of grassroots sentiment.)

It was one of two important polls out of the Sunshine State yesterday.

A new poll conducted in Florida’s Senate race suggests that Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) best path to victory would be to run as an independent for office this fall.

The survey, which was conducted by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio for a group not involved in the Senate contest, showed former state House Speaker Marco Rubio leading Crist 44 percent to 30 percent in the primary race. […]

In a three-way race between Rubio, the Republican, Rep. Kendrick Meek, the Democrat, and Crist running as an independent, Rubio takes 31 percent to 26 percent for Crist and 24 percent for Meek. Crist wins roughly one-quarter of the votes of both self-identified Democrats and Republicans, and takes 41 percent among independents.

“Any minor improvement for Crist within the GOP or with Democrats coupled with a maximization of his support among independents could easily put him in the lead in a three-way Senate contest,” writes Fabrizio.

Crist’s aides insist that the governor will not run as an independent. As for the notion that Crist might want to run as a moderate Democrat — an idea first raised in November — the speculation hasn’t even risen to the level that the Crist campaign feels the need to address it.

But Crist is losing — badly. The dominant right-wing element of the Republican Party has a point it hopes to make, and it has every intention to crushing Crist to send a message to other GOP candidates who may stray from the far-right line.

Campaigns can be unpredictable, but it’s hard to imagine the scenario in which Crist recovers and wins this primary. If he wants to hold elected office in January, Crist is apparently going to have to consider alternative plans.

I’ve asked around among Florida politicos about whether there was any chance at all of Crist becoming a Dem, and while no one literally laughed at the idea, no one thought it was a plausible move, either. Crist has some options — run as an independent, drop out and run for another gubernatorial term — but joining the Democrats probably isn’t one of them, despite the fact that it might offer him his best chance at winning.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.