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Southern Political Report: Charlie Crist-Marco Rubio battle marks the GOP’s ideological divide

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Rush Limbaugh and Gen. Colin Powell campaign against each other on the airwaves. Yet there will be no settling the score between them at the ballot box. To decide their squabble about the definition and direction of the Republican Party, proxies will stand in next year in Florida’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate. Moderate Gov. Charlie Crist is the prohibitive favorite, of course. He has long since made the watershed rite of passage necessary to make his name known to everyman Floridians — he got his ears boxed in a statewide election against a political fixture (Bob Graham in 1998).

His skilled or lucky timing also has served him well. Crist’s political moment came at the exact right time. He is a moderate just when hard-bark conservatism has started to wane.

Though when campaigning for governor in 2006 he pledged to be “a Jeb Bush Republican,” Crist in fact has neither the personal nor intellectual style of an ideologue. GOP voters rewarded him with an avalanche victory over self-styled conservative Tom Gallagher in that year’s primary. Why shouldn’t they do it again for Senate in 2010? His approval numbers are lodged in the stratosphere.

And Rubio? A common view of him in Tallahassee is that his paint-by-the-numbers ambition, his lack of business or other real-world experience, and his sheepskin from the Jeb Bush school of politics have combined to make him a little too cute for the prom.

And yet the 37-year-old is seizing the moment. A halfway successful tilt at King Charlie next year and Rubio will have the name ID to run in Florida elections when and if the political wheel in the sky again turns to the right. By then his polished, Platonic conservative ideals, such as a complete overhaul of the federal tax system, may strike a chord with more than just fringe voters.

For now at least he has this advantage: His plank positions generally are better fitted for a campaign than for governance. He sounds good. Perhaps too good. Which is not to say that he is insincere. If you held down Rubio and Crist and tickled them, Rubio would come across as having the most sincere set of political principles. The man is truly passionate.

Crist is a political psychologist. He feels your pain, as long as you’re in the majority. Media generally smirks at him for being the artful dodger of press conferences. Crist’s gift is his iron refusal to wax indignant in public. Unless, of course, the anger is stagecraft, as it was when he scolded an insurance lobbyist following Florida’s rash of hurricanes. You can’t hook Crist with political argument because he won’t even sniff the bait.

With media, Rubio’s crime is his association with former Gov. Jeb Bush. Jeb was a popular governor, but a Bush nonetheless. Guilty. Next case.

In short, the contrast is clear between the two men, both ideologically and temperamentally; as much as between candidates of opposing parties, in fact. Which is the whole point with the state Republican Party’s rank-and-file. It largely despises Gov. Crist for being a supposed turncoat to GOP bedrock ideals.

And so the coming drama, regardless of the margin of Crist’s likely victory in the primary next year. The entertainment value to media inside and beyond Florida will be to witness the Republican base slashing the bloody waters with the torn flesh of one another.

Already conservative blogs in Florida have voiced disenchantment with the telegenic Rubio. The Miami Cuban-American first officially announced his candidacy in Spanish. This should have been emblematic of the party’s best hope for big tent-like growth. Many Latinos can safely be characterized as social conservatives, even if they don’t subscribe to the term. But there was enough anecdotal outrage over Rubio’s language faux pas to give witness that too many Republicans are reactionary in a world hurtling forward at warp speed. If the Florida GOP loses Latinos in anything like the numbers it has lost blacks, then it can expect to habitually and automatically lose more than one out of four voters in a given general election.

A group of anti-Crist county Republican parties recently won a tactical victory. They got the state party to back off an endorsement of Crist. Fair enough, but what was so startling about the state party getting behind the candidacy of the sitting governor? That’s certainly what the National Republican Senatorial Committee did by endorsing Crist. The national committee’s job is to get R’s elected to the Senate. All the more because the Republicans could lose even more seats next year. But surface sense often conceals submarine turmoil during a civil war. And the Republicans in Florida are threatened with just such a conflict.

To gain the traction he will need to make it a close race and thereby further his career, Rubio needs to raise serious money quickly, which is why the NRSC acted so fast to discourage out-of-state donors to him.

The Weekly Standard can coin Rubio as a Republican Obama (about three years after Florida Insider did), but Rubio sympathizers beyond Florida’s borders are of no use unless they put their money where their mouths are.

Rubio’s best shot at a surprise showing against Crist? A light turnout in which wingers have a disproportionate say over moderates in Florida’s closed primary system. This is at least possible since state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson demurred from running for governor, leaving state Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum as the presumptive nominee.

Rubio must fashion a coalition of Latinos who identify with him ethnically and angry conservative Anglos who identify with him ideologically. If he can pull it off, the man will have blazed a path to a place most people no longer imagine — a bona fide Republican future.

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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