Ben Smith of Politico reported Thursday night that former President Bill Clinton almost got Rep. Kendrick Meek — floundering in a distant third place in the polls in the race for U.S. Senate — to drop out, going as far as scheduling an endorsement rally with no-party candidate Gov. Charlie Crist, but Meek decided against it. More from Smith:

The former president’s top aide, Doug Band, initially served as the intermediary between Meek and Crist, and Clinton became involved only when Meek signaled that he would seriously consider the option, Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna confirmed to POLITICO.

“The argument was: ‘You can be a hero here. You can stop him, you can change this race in one swoop,’” said another Democrat familiar with the conversations, who said Clinton had bluntly told Meek that he couldn’t win the race.

The Meek campaign strenuously denied that he had decided to drop out after talks with Clinton, a staunch Meek ally. “Kendrick Meek was not ever dropping out of this race and will not ever drop out of this race,” Meek campaign manager Abe Dyk said in a statement.

Crist, Clinton, and even Rep. Meek all said that conversations had taken place about Meek dropping out —  but Meek denied that he had ever made a decision, calling the report “inaccurate at best.” Crist went so far as to confirm the story on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, saying, “I had numerous phone calls with people very close to President Clinton.”

Clinton said on CNN that he had discussed it with Meek twice, but not the White House: “He was trying to determine what was the best thing for him to do.” Clinton added, “I knew it was being discussed, people had discussed it on and off. … It was no secret.”

Meek — low on money and earning about 20 percent in the polls — has to have at least considered dropping out. To no surprise, his campaign strenuously pushed back at rumors that his exit was imminent. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post says that the Crist campaign initiated the talks with Clinton fixer Doug Band, which seems entirely plausible — he would have been the beneficiary of Meek dropping out, as it would have propelled Crist into a competitive race with Republican Marco Rubio.

But the real loser in this story is not just Meek, who was likely going to lose the race anyway — it is Democratic candidate for governor Alex Sink, who may lose votes from African-Americans energized by Meek’s candidacy. (At the same time, 1.7 million voters have already voted, and a Rubio internal poll shows Meek beating Crist 28-24.)

The sink is in a very tight race with Republican Rick Scott: Polls either show her 3 points up or 3 points down, which means nothing.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele sent out in a statement that Clinton’s actions were “chilling” African-American voters. He added, “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.”

Meek is the only African-American Senate candidate this cycle; that Clinton (with awareness from the White House) almost persuaded Meek to drop out may well depress Democratic turnout that Sink needs to overcome Republican voters that will show up at the polls, in no small part due to enthusiasm for Senate candidate Rubio.

Luke Johnson reports on Florida for The American Independent.

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