ORLANDO — It's the unity, stupid.
After months of bloodletting in the U.S. Senate primary and a backlash that toppled the state party chief last week, Florida Republicans urged one another Saturday to join forces in 2010 against their true nemesis: the Democrats.
If party leaders got a dollar every time they used the word "unity" at their annual meeting on Saturday, they could have taken the whole crowd to Disney World. Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer, who will be replaced at a Feb. 20 election, asked each of the 300 activists to shake hands with whoever is next to them.
"At the end of the day, we will be unified," he said. "This issue has ended. We will have new leadership."
The increasingly competitive Senate primary pitting Gov. Charlie Crist against former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has divided many activists, mirroring a broader, nationwide debate between moderates and conservatives over the party's direction.
With every statewide office in Florida open this year, the calls for harmony on Saturday were more than slogans. The 2010 election will determine whether the GOP retains its lock on state government — despite the terrible economy — at a time when the national climate favors Republicans.
"You look at what the Democrats are doing all over the country? They're dropping like flies," mocked Crist, referring to a spate of retirements by incumbent Democrats. "If we don't seize this opportunity, then shame on us. … This guy in the White House has handed our party more than anything we could do for ourselves."
Party leaders sought to portray the chasm between conservatives and moderates as a healthy debate that will ultimately strengthen the party. Peter Feaman, a GOP committeeman from Palm Beach County, read aloud a formal resolution urging the party to bring anti-Obama Tea Party' activists into the Republican fold.
"I think the Republican Party actually is very frustrated and the base is fired up over national issues, over state issues, over the last couple election cycles," said Attorney General Bill McCollum, the Republican front-runner for governor. "I think you're seeing a good thing, something that will result in a strong voter turnout next November."
Obama's message of hope has faded, said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, and been replaced by anger.
"But anger alone will not retake the majority for the Republican Party," said Putnam, who is running for state agriculture commissioner. "It is just a passion. It is not a plan for government. … So for our Republican Party to be successful at the state level and at the national level, we have to have people understand what our vision and what our leadership will bring."
In a sign of just how disenchanted voters are with the political establishment, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found Tea Party activists more popular than either the Democrats or Republicans.
"America has fallen out of love with the Democratic Party, but they have not fallen back in love with us," Putnam added.
The dysfunction is unusual for normally disciplined Florida Republicans long accustomed to watching internal warfare among Florida Democrats. In contrast with the Democratic feud over Florida's early presidential primary that led to an all-out candidate boycott during a history-making primary, Republicans quietly resolved the dispute.
"This was once the premier state political organization in the country, and I think it can be that again," Rubio said.
Saturday's meeting in Orlando capped a tumultuous week during which Greer resigned as chairman amid allegations of financial mismanagement and clumsy meddling in the contest between Crist and Rubio.
"Yes we've had a few little blips in the road, and the media has loved to discuss this. But the time has come to end that, to be the party of energy and enthusiasm and smiles," Greer said, earning a standing ovation.
The party still faces disagreement over Greer's successor. A slew of elected officials and top donors have closed ranks around state Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, but many county party leaders prefer longtime party leader Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale.
When Greer offered Thrasher a chance to address the crowd Saturday, Thrasher sought to be gracious to his rival.
"I will only do this if any other candidate has the same opportunity I do," Thrasher said, drawing applause. "I don't feel anointed. I am going to try to earn your respect and confidence to lead this party."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.