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Florida fratricide

The GOP civil war moves to the Sunshine State

Way back on May 13, I predicted that Florida would be the setting for "the next Republican civil war." Perhaps that was an understatement. A more updated assessment has been offered by David Frum, the conservative commentator and former George W. Bush speechwriter. He writes on his blog that "Republican fratricide" in Florida will result in a "spectacular bloodbath."

Just as in the recent New York congressional race - where conservative-versus-moderate fratricide screwed things up so badly that a Democrat wound up winning a House seat that hadn't gone Democratic since around 1870 - the escalating Florida feud between conservative purists and moderate pragmatists in the GOP Senate race threatens to imperil the party unity that Republicans will need in order to recoup at the ballot box in 2010.

Just as in the New York race, where national movement conservatives fatally undercut the GOP establishment's preferred House candidate, the same conservative forces (talk radio, prominent right-wing magazines, Washington interest groups) are ratcheting up their attacks on Charlie Crist, the lame duck Florida governor who is seeking the '10 Senate nomination with backing from the party establishment. From the purists' perspective, Crist deserves to be taken down because he committed the ultimate sin: He not only took President Obama's economic stimulus money last winter, he even hugged Obama at a public rally.

The chosen vehicle for conservative ire, Senate primary challenger Mario Rubio (a former Florida House Speaker who is reputedly close to 100 percent pure), has now posted a web advertisement featuring footage of Crist and Obama at that rally. What better way to inflame Florida's conservative Republican electorate - which will dominate the voting in next August's GOP primary?

Club for Growth, the Washington conservative group that's flexing muscle in GOP races, has now endorsed Rubio, produced a TV ad, and appears poised to raise money for the underdog; at this point, more than one-third of Rubio's money is coming from conservatives out of state (far higher than Crist's out-of-state ratio). The prominent conservative blogs have signed up for Rubio; Erick Erickson, who runs, reportedly said the other day that, for conservatives, "Florida is a hill to die on." The Weekly Standard and National Review magazines have fawned over Rubio in cover stories. Back in May, Crist was leading Rubio in the polls by 35 percentage points; today, even though a lot of Floridians still don't know much about Rubio, Crist's lead has been whittled to 14.

Crist is caught in a classic dilemma. On the one hand, he needs to win over the conservative purists in order to beat Rubio in the '10 party primary; he can achieve that goal only by serving up the requisite right-wing rhetoric about "big government" and "reckless spending." On the other hand, Crist is trapped by his recent actions as governor. Right-wing rhetoric is fine on the stump, where nobody has to take any responsibility for actual governance, but in the real world, where real people are really suffering, governors sometimes have to take practical steps to alleviate the hurt.

Crist did that. Florida was one the states hit hardest by the near-Depression economic meltdown of 2008, which wreaked havoc with his state budget. And like virtually all other governors, Crist was constitutionally required to balance that budget. He couldn't come close to that goal merely by raising various state fees and the cigarette tax. So with virtuaally no other options, and with his back to the wall, he (like virtually every other governor, in both parties) agreed to take Obama's federal stimulus aid - thereby averting deep cuts in school budgets, deep cuts in state health aid to poor people, the furloughing of state workers, and further hikes in state taxes. He was also able to extend jobless benefits to Floridians thrown out of work.

That's how it works in the real world. By contrast, Rubio insists that if he had been governing, he would have refused the stimulus money. When asked by the press to specify how he would have pulled the state out of the economic emergency, Rubio reportedly replied, "I don't have the budget in front of me."

The purists don't seem upset by that kind of answer; what matters is that Rubio's ideology is correct. By contrast, Crist these days seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth - which is hardly attractive behavior in a Senate primary contest.

Crist is making it easy for party conservatives to attack him as a typical pol with credibility baggage. He obviously can't deny that he took the federal stimulus money, so instead he has been trying to distance himself from Obama's economic agenda - an empirically impossible task. His attempts are not very artful.

The other day on CNN, Crist was talking about the stimulus bill. He stated, "I didn't endorse it." Well, actually, he did. On MSNBC last February, he listed the practical benefits of the stimulus money and said, "That's why I support it." That same month, he told Time magazine, "I see this package as a pragmatic, commonsense opportunity to move forward." Also that same month, he told the St. Petersburg Times, "We know that it's important that we pass a stimulus package." He also lobbied Florida congressmen, urging them to vote for the bill. He also joined other governors in sending a letter to Obama, urging the president "to sign the bill when it reaches your desk." (Crist's pro-stimulus track record is arguably an asset in the eyes of many Florida Democrats and independents, but those folks are barred from voting in the closed Republican primary.)

Worse yet, for Crist, are his recent attempts to distance himself from Obama personally. Late last month, Crist publicly claimed he had no idea that Obama was visiting his state on Oct. 26. Then the St. Pete Times, via a public records request, obtained emails which proved that the White House had sent Crist an itinerary of Obama's visit three days in advance. As a result of all these PR embarrassments, Crist's communications director felt compelled last week to fall on his sword and quit his job.

Rubio's national conservative backers are delighted with Crist's gyrations. In a guest newspaper column this morning, the president of Club for Growth chuckled that Crist's campaign "now consists of telling Floridians that he did not do things they watched him do only a few months ago. If you're not sure about what Governor Crist really believes, it's okay – Governor Crist doesn't seem to know, either."

Crist is not without weapons in a Senate primary, however. He's a prodigious fundraiser; saturation TV ads in the Florida media market are expensive, perhaps too pricey for a conservative challenger backed by national conservative money (by comparison, the conservative tab in that upstate New York congressional race was a pittance). And two can play the simplistic purity game; Crist is targeting an old Rubio proposal to hike the state sales tax. Rubio can rightfully cry foul - back when he was Florida House speaker, he suggested hiking that sales tax only in conjunction with erasing the property tax on primary residences - but this is hardball, and Crist has the advertising bucks to sow doubts about the purist's purity.

Who knows, maybe the movement conservatives will wake up in time and show some respect for the complexities of actual governance - instead of forcing the GOP to nominate ideologues. But that won't happen for the foreseeable future. David Frum, the ex-Bush speechwriter and aforementioned commentator, tells a story of how he was speaking the other day "to a roomful of young conservatives," all of whom were trashing the economic stimulus plan. Frum then said, OK fine, what would you have done to alleviate the worst of the crisis?

Somebody laughed and replied, "I guess it's lucky that we weren't in power."

That says it all.