After Tuesday's elections, Florida looms as the next front in a war between moderates and conservatives that's dividing a Republican Party trying to surge toward the 2010 election.
The state's GOP primary for U.S. Senate has all the ingredients to pack an ideological powder keg. It pits the sitting governor, Charlie Crist, who embraced President Barack Obama's spending plan, against a scrappy former state lawmaker, Marco Rubio, who has become a darling of the conservative movement.
And it's all happening in the nation's biggest swing state, which typically leans Republican but fell for Obama in the 2008 election and has five statewide seats up for grabs in 2010.
Conservative groups active in a campaign in New York's 23rd congressional district that forced out a Republican they felt was too moderate say Florida is next on their agenda.
"There's no question that the Florida race is going to be a focal point of the 2010 election cycle, with its classic David-and-Goliath matchup," said Mike Connolly, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that spent $1 million in the last month in New York. "There's no question that Florida is going to attract and energize conservatives."
The group is expected to endorse Rubio in the coming weeks, raising the prospect of an anti-Crist media blitz that could cut into the governor's fivefold fundraising advantage.
FreedomWorks, a group that led many of the anti-Obama "tea party'' rallies nationwide, is also setting its sights on Florida.
"The small government activists and the tea party movement is drawn to Rubio with great enthusiasm, and they're going to assert themselves," said FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey, the former Republican leader in Congress.
Republicans emerged from Tuesday's elections energized by victories in Virginia and New Jersey. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, was toppled by the Republican nominee, Chris Christie. In Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican, defeated his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds. The victories were cast by the Republican Party's national chairman, Michael Steele, as a sign of a "Republican renaissance."
But now, as the party turns toward the 2010 midterm elections, pitched battles between moderates and conservatives — and between the Washington establishment and the conservative grass roots — are under way all across the country.
In response, some candidates are laboring to shed their moderate credentials to survive bruising primary battles. In Illinois, Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate whom party leaders embrace as the best hope for an open Senate seat, wrote to an adviser to former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin seeking her endorsement.
In Connecticut, former GOP congressman Rob Simmons, regarded in Congress as a New England moderate, is linking himself to the tea party movement and now carries a tea bag along with a copy of the Constitution to try fend off conservative primary challengers.
Conservative Republicans are also turning their attention to Pennsylvania, where Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter faces Republican Pat Toomey — a former Club for Growth president — and to California, where ex-CEO Carly Fiorina is competing in a Republican primary against a conservative state assemblyman, Chuck DeVore. Tea party activists already have circled in on Fiorina as their next casualty.
Still, some party leaders have sounded calls for moderation, suggesting a key to beating Democrats in swing states may be McDonnell's gubernatorial victory in Virginia. McDonnell, a social conservative, campaigned as a moderate and appealed to independent voters on kitchen-table issues such as the economy and jobs.
The party's fortunes in next year's elections may rest in its ability to harness a populist wave of voter discontent with Washington and government spending.
Rubio's new online fundraising Web site, www.Charlieand Obama.com, aims to capitalize on that backlash. He is attracting a trickle of money from conservative political action committees.
Crist has the backing of the national Republican Party, but a GOP leader said Tuesday that the party would not spend money in contested Senate primaries.
"That's significant. It means Charlie Crist is on his own," said Alex Burgos, a spokesman for the Rubio campaign.
Crist's campaign said it never expected to receive party money. Polls show the governor with a double-digit lead over Rubio.
"We knew the party wouldn't spend money on this race. We're just thrilled to have their support," said Crist's campaign manager, Eric Eikenberg. "They endorsed him right out of the box based on his record."
Democrats say the Crist-Rubio battle will leave their party's front-running Senate candidate, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, in a stronger position to win the general election.
"Rather than fighting for the heart and soul of the Republican Party, Crist and Rubio should stand up and fight for Florida," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff. "Rather than working on solutions, they are fighting in a Republican not-so-civil war."
Crist defended his conservative credentials in an interview on CNN Wednesday, noting that the Republican-led Legislature used federal stimulus money to balance the budget and avert more teacher layoffs.
"You know, I, like all other Republican governors, utilized that money for the benefit of the people in my state," he said. "And that's what a pragmatic conservative does — a CEO, if you will, of a state does that."
A former press secretary for President George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, headlined a Boca Raton fundraiser for Crist on Monday.
"I think the governor's conservative record, especially on fiscal issues, is exactly what we need in Washington," Fleischer said. Asked about Crist's support for Obama's stimulus package, he said, "We have some issues we don't agree on. But it's unusual for me to get involved in a primary. We need people in the Senate who have voted to cut taxes, and I look at the whole record."
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Washington Post and New York Times.