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RUBIO WIDENS A GOP DIVIDE IN CRITICIZING CRIST'S ACTIONS

The House Speaker challenges Gov. Crist on two hot topics.

Seven months into a term marked by moderate positions, Gov. Charlie Crist is facing the first substantial criticism from a leader of his own party: House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Twice this week, the Miami Republican penned opinion pieces that criticized Crist's positions on gambling and global warming.

"The potential to integrate greener approaches into the fabric of Florida's economy is unlimited," Rubio wrote Wednesday in the Miami Herald, "but we must be willing to embrace the free-market approach - not European-style big government mandates."

Writing in Florida Baptist Witness, Rubio lashed out at "Gov. Charlie Crist's actions to allow progambling bills to become law." One of the bills expanded the hours and number of machines at four voter-approved casinos in Broward County.

Rubio, who is term-limited next year, denied he was trying to position himself to challenge Crist in 2010.

"Why would I distance myself from a popular governor who's generally done a very good job?" Rubio said Thursday.

"There is no vast right-wing conspiracy," Rubio added. "I think people want that to happen. I think people want the drama. But that's not what this is about."

Crist has embraced global warming as a concern, hosting a summit this month in Miami and signing executive orders limiting greenhouse gas emissions, mandating strict emissions limits for cars sold in Florida and forcing utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources.

In his op-ed piece, Rubio commended Crist's focus but said mandates will only lead to higher utility costs. A better way, Rubio said, is to encourage business to invest in new technology that can reduce pollution.

The column ignited a debate among both party's leaders and caused several prominent Democrats to come to Crist's defense. "There is no denying that there is a battle raging for the soul of the Republican Party, and in no place are the battle lines clearer than the issue of global warming," Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, the House minority leader, said Thursday.

Crist had little response to Rubio other than saying he welcomes healthy debate.

But he didn't have to say much: On Thursday morning, he stood outside the Governor's Mansion with Progress Energy officials and announced a new biomass plant in rural North Florida that will turn waste wood into electricity.

Despite Crist's high approval rating - above 70 percent in the latest poll - there is anecdotal evidence some Republicans are disappointed. Crist this year has acted to restore felons' voting rights, called for stem cell research and hired a few Democrats into his administration, notably former Attorney General Bob Butterworth to run the Department of Children and Families.

And now Crist has taken on global warming.

"Some (constituents) feel like he's not as conservative as they would like to see a Republican governor," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. Still, Galvano likes what Crist is doing and agrees with his urgent outlook on climate control.

If there is any criticism of the governor, Galvano said, it is that Crist has set high public expectations for lower insurance rates and property taxes.

The rhetoric on those fronts has not yet met reality, leading to angry e-mails from voters in Crist's in-box. Failure to deliver could only embolden an ambitious young politician who has proposed doing away with property taxes altogether on primary homes in exchange for a higher sales tax.

Rubio, 36, also may feel pressure from those unsettled conservatives. He has surrounded himself with former staffers and advisers to previous Gov. Jeb Bush, and the former governor offers advice to Rubio. In his antigambling piece, Rubio invoked Bush's disapproval of gambling.

The message, it seemed, was that Crist doesn't have that same conviction.

"I'm just surprised by this belief that somehow Crist is supporting the gambling industry," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, who sponsored the Broward gambling bill. Crist let it pass without his signature.

"I think he's trying to distinguish himself from the governor," Seiler said of Rubio. "It's politics."

But lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, an adviser to Crist and Bush, sees it differently. Rubio, he said, prides himself on being a man of ideas and isn't afraid to engage in debate.

"It's slightly unusual but not without precedent," Stipanovich said of Rubio's public criticism. "And it's not unhealthy. Maybe we're moving beyond that idea of one idea, lockstep."

Times capital bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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