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GOP Senate leaders back moderate Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s bid

It is a heated debate in the struggling Republican Party: whether to broaden its ideology or follow the advice of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and others who argue against deviating from core conservative principles.

Now, the GOP has a chance to see whether a moderate can become a model for Republican resurgence, with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announcing Tuesday that he will run for the U.S. Senate in that politically important state.

Crist, who has bucked the GOP’s conservative wing on voting rights, global warming and other issues, enjoys high approval ratings. But with the governor facing a conservative in the primary, Republican leaders across the country have seized on Florida as a battleground in the larger philosophical war over the party’s future.

Crist won instant endorsements from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the GOP Senate campaign committee. The two see him as the best hope for keeping a Senate seat in GOP hands as the party tries to avoid falling below the crucial number of senators needed to block legislation, an outcome that many political analysts see as likely.

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Crist’s main primary challenger, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, went on the attack Tuesday, releasing a video showing the governor with President Obama and criticizing Crist’s support of the Democrats’ “reckless” economic stimulus spending.

“Our primary will offer Republicans a front-row seat to a debate about the future of the Republican Party here in Florida and across the nation,” Rubio said. “My campaign will offer GOP voters a clear alternative to the direction some want to take our party.”

Rubio, 37, is little-known outside of Miami and is given steep odds of taking down Crist.

The Florida announcement comes as GOP infighting has intensified following moderate Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats and a spate of recent surveys that show only about one-fifth of American voters consider themselves Republicans.

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Last year’s elections almost wiped Republicans off the map in the Northeast and Southwest. The party won only a fraction of Latinos and other minorities that once were seen as building blocks of a new, long-lasting majority.

Several GOP leaders -- including Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- late last month announced the formation of the National Council for a New America to open a policy-focused discussion designed to help rebuild the party.

But the group has been ridiculed by leading conservatives, who complained that the rollout touched on economic and national security issues but not on social concerns such as abortion, gay marriage and guns.

Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wrote a derisive column on the Fox News website poking fun at the GOP leaders for needing a “listening tour” to understand the American psyche. In it, he accused the council of treating “values voters as if they were embarrassing distant cousins who are allowed to come to the family gatherings a couple of times a year, but aren’t expected to be seen beyond that.”

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Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, chided the group for kicking off its campaign “devoid of the values that once caused voters to identify with the party.”

In a television interview over the weekend, former Vice President Cheney said he would “go with Rush Limbaugh” as a true Republican over former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a moderate who last year endorsed Obama’s candidacy.

Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, also has been critical of Republicans who do not adhere to core conservatism, saying recently that when Specter left the party he should have taken 2008 presidential nominee John McCain with him.

Complicating the GOP’s challenge in presenting itself as a unified party is the presence of the powerful pro-business Club for Growth, which helped push Specter out of the GOP and has been harshly critical of Crist.

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Republican strategists said Tuesday that the party needed to be more concerned about picking candidates who could win than with limiting itself to pure conservatives, particularly with the GOP at risk of losing Senate seats in Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Already, the Specter defection has put the party’s Senate roster right at the crucial number of 40 -- and if Democrat Al Franken is declared the winner of last year’s Minnesota Senate race, then the majority party (with the help of two independents) will have the 60 votes needed to override Republican filibuster attempts.

Grover Norquist, who as head of Americans for Tax Reform is a key leader of the conservative movement, said he had a pragmatic desire to elect “the most Reaganite Republican that can win in any given district or state.” That means, he said, that he supports electing moderates in Maine but not necessarily in Texas -- and that in Florida, where Obama won last year, Crist may well be the best candidate.

Cornyn, a conservative, signaled months ago that he would take a pragmatic view on the question of ideological purity versus winning elections. Addressing a conservative conference in February, Cornyn said he would recruit moderate candidates if they matched the politics of their states, and that “a circular firing squad is no solution” to the party’s problems.

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The Texas senator described Rubio, a Cuban American, as having a “very bright future,” but added that Crist was the “best candidate in 2010.”

Crist, 52, is expected to present himself as an answer to the Republican Party’s image troubles -- a nonideological figure with a can-do, friendly demeanor.

He rose to prominence as a tough-on-crime Florida state lawmaker by supporting chain gangs for prisoners. As attorney general and governor, he aggressively courted Latino and black voters. Early in his term, he pushed a rule to speed the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons -- a deeply unpopular move with many Republican politicians.

In February, after Obama’s stimulus plan was rejected by every House Republican and all but three Republican senators, Crist irked conservatives by joining the Democratic president at a campaign-style rally in hard-hit Fort Myers, Fla., to extol the need for the bill.

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Tom Slade, a former chairman of the Florida GOP, said popularity always trumps ideology, and he predicted Crist easily would win the Republican nomination.

That, he added, that might be good for the party as a whole.

“There are not enough blue-eyed, white, blond guys and girls who go to church three times on Sunday and once on Wednesday to make up a majority for the Republican Party almost anywhere,” Slade said. “If we don’t broaden the party, there won’t be much of a party left.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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