Repeat of NY-23? Club for Growth targets Crist in Senate race.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, is on the defensive after the conservative Club for Growth released an ad Thursday that shows him lauding Obama's stimulus package.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Newscom/File
Then Florida Gov.-Elect Charlie Crist, right, listens to George LeMieux, left, at a press conference in November 2006.

Florida has emerged as one of the next battlegrounds in the Republican Party’s civil war – and Gov. Charlie Crist (R), a moderate running for Senate, stands squarely in the conservatives’ sights.

Governor Crist faces a GOP primary challenge from a young conservative, former state House speaker Marco Rubio, who has some high-profile backers – including former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Polls show Crist leading Mr. Rubio, but the gap is narrowing.

The Florida race is one of many where conservative activists are undaunted in their desire to defeat moderate Republicans, despite the loss of a hotly contested House race Tuesday in New York’s 23rd District. The third-party Conservative in that race lost to the Democrat after the Republican was driven out for not being conservative enough.

Crist and the stimulus bill

The anti-tax Club for Growth (CFG), which spent $650,000 on ads in NY-23, released an ad Thursday taking on Crist over his support for President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

Crist had stated on CNN Wednesday that he did not endorse the stimulus.

“I didn’t even have a vote on the darned thing,” he told Wolf Blitzer. “But I understood that it was going to pass and I wanted to be able to utilize it for the benefit of my fellow Floridians.”

At a Thursday press briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Crist was “very supportive” of the legislation.

The CFG ad (see here) shows a video clip of Crist at a joint appearance with Mr. Obama in February in Fort Myers, Fla. “We know it’s important to pass this stimulus package,” Crist says. He and Obama embrace – a shot that conservatives will surely use early and often between now and primary day, Aug. 24, 2010.

CFG has not made an endorsement in the Florida primary but will do so in the “next few weeks,” says CFG spokesman Mike Connolly.

Conservatives unbowed

Nationally, the conservative energy that set NY-23 on fire appears not to have waned, despite the loss in that race. On Wednesday, Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page, “The cause goes on” – a quote from Ronald Reagan after he lost the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. On Thursday, 10,000 tea partiers descended on Capitol Hill from around the country to protest the House Democrats’ healthcare reform plan.

Other Republicans in the sights of conservative activists include:

Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah.

Illinois Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kirk.

Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina.

Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party in April after it became clear he could not win his GOP primary against Pat Toomey, former president of CFG.

Crist's challenges

In Florida, Crist had been a popular governor, but his job approval rating is now below 50 percent. Still, he is a formidable fundraiser. Rubio will need a lot of help to catch up to Crist financially. But he can be competitive if energized conservative activists, including “tea partiers” and various political action committees, come through for him.

With the Democratic candidate being seen as weak, the winner of the Republican primary has an excellent shot at winning the seat left vacant by Mel Martinez, who retired before his term ended. Crist appointed his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, to finish the term. Mr. LeMieux is not running in 2010.

Crist’s sinking popularity is a result of the state’s economic woes. Unemployment is running above the national average, and the foreclosure crisis hit hard in Florida. Political observers are not surprised to see Crist facing a challenge from his right flank.

“It’s just really the frustration coming out,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Same as we saw in these elections [this week]. People are just frustrated that Florida’s economy hasn’t turned around as fast as he had [Crist] promised. And taxes haven’t dropped."

See also:

What GOP candidates want: a Sarah Palin endorsement

Huckabee: GOP tent can ‘be big,’ but NY-23 was a ‘train wreck’

New York House race lays bare Republican infighting


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