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CQ: Populist outrage and pragmatic recruiting a volatile mix for GOP

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From CQ: Republican officials, groping for a formula to revive their party, have been firing up their conservative activist base with support for “tea parties” that skewer big government, and rhetoric that brands President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party as “Socialist.”

At the same time, though, GOP strategists have been working to recruit candidates for key 2010 elections who project more moderate images — which might draw them support across party lines and make them, at least in theory, more “electable.”

This is proving to be no easy balancing act, as underscored by a rising conservative backlash to the GOP establishment’s efforts to clear the Florida Senate primary field for Republican Gov. Charlie Crist.

There is a Web-based campaign to dissuade conservatives from sending money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s elections unit, and calls for Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, to resign over his efforts to hustle a more conservative (and potentially competitive) Republican out of the 2010 primary contest. It’s easy to see why Crist would appear a prime prospect to the party establishment. He has enjoyed strong job approval ratings since he became governor, with appeal to many independents and Democrats.

This is in large part because Crist, though for the most part right-leaning, has an approach that is relatively non-ideological. And that’s why national and state Republican officials beseeched him to run for the Senate seat left open by retiring Republican Mel Martinez, rather than go for a second term as governor that appeared his for the asking.

But Crist infuriated many conservative activists in February when he endorsed the Democrats’ economic stimulus plan — describing it as necessary to address the deep recession affecting Florida and the rest of the nation — and appeared with Obama at a Florida rally to build support for the measure.

If the Democrats are “socialists” in the eyes of these conservative Republicans, then Crist’s actions made him a fellow traveler.

Thus the outraged response when the NRSC immediately followed Crist’s Senate candidacy announcement earlier this month with an endorsement, and politely suggested that conservative former state House Speaker Marco Rubio should be a good fellow and clear the field for Crist.

“While I believe Marco Rubio has a very bright future within the Republican Party, Charlie Crist is the best candidate in 2010 to ensure that we maintain the checks and balances that Floridians deserve in the United States Senate,” Cornyn said in a statement.

But Rubio, a member of the Florida Republican Party’s sizable Cuban-American constituency, is touted by his fans as a rising star. And when the GOP brass told Rubio to jump, he did not respond, “How high?”

Rather, he released an ad on the heels of Crist’s candidacy announcement titled “Let the Debate Begin.” The ad associated Crist with what a voiceover described as reckless government spending, and included a photo of Obama and Crist chatting at that rally for the economic stimulus bill.

There is now a group on the Facebook social networking site called “Not One Penny to the National Republican Senatorial Committee” — promoted by conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com — and a “Not One Red Cent” blog, both calling on contributors to boycott the NRSC over the Crist endorsement.

John Hawkins, founder of RightWingNews.com, is among those demanding that Cornyn resign his position as NRSC chairman for the 2010 cycle.

Here’s the quandary for the “pragmatic” GOP strategists like Cornyn. They are happy to encourage those angry grass-roots activists when they are shaking their fists at the Democrats. But those folks, it turns out, are no more receptive to taking instructions from their own Republican leaders in Washington, especially when they are told have to nominate “electable” centrists for the good of the party.

So that “tent” the Republican Party insiders are trying to build must not only be big, but strong enough to withstand the whirlwind that these same party leaders have unleashed on the right.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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