WASHINGTON — Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh contend the Republican Party needs less moderation and more conservative backbone to win back voters who have been abandoning it in droves.
Leaders of the party's 2010 election efforts are showing they don't think ideological purity is the answer.
In the latest example, key Republican senators jumped this week behind the Senate candidacy of centrist GOP Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, picking sides a year before the party primary even though another well-established candidate, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, has stronger conservative credentials.
In other high-profile Senate races, party leaders have encouraged or recruited centrists such as Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware and Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois. Ridge opted not to run, while Castle and Kirk are considering 2010 races for the seats that Democratic appointees filled when Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama left the Senate.
The outreach to more moderate candidates is angering many in the party's conservative base, further exposing a rift over the direction Republicans should take after disastrous election losses in 2006 and 2008. Republican leaders such as Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, and Cheney, the former vice president, have warned the party against moving toward the middle as it tries to regain the congressional majorities it enjoyed in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Almost immediately after Crist launched his campaign Tuesday, an influential conservative blogger, Erick Erickson, asked readers to join a new Web-based group called "Not one penny to the National Republican Senatorial Committee."
Erickson explained his reasons on redstate.com: "Getting behind Crist in the Florida primary is wholly unacceptable."
"I think the party is continuing to not get it, and they'll continue to lose elections if they keep acting in bad faith like this," said John Stemberger, a conservative activist who runs the Florida Family Policy Council. "This race in the primary is really going to be a battle for the heart and soul of the party."
Stemberger said Rubio has a good chance of beating Crist in the primary and national Republicans risk losing credibility if that happens. He called it unprecedented for Washington party insiders to intervene so blatantly in a contested primary.
In Florida, Rubio immediately aired a Web video showing Crist and President Barack Obama standing face to face earlier this year promoting Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill, even as more conservative Republican governors were threatening to refuse the federal money on ideological grounds.
"Borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children," an announcer says. "Let the debate begin."
But on Capitol Hill, Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona joined NRSC Chairman John Cornyn of Texas in singing Crist's praises. Sen. Mel Martinez, the retiring Florida Republican whom Crist would replace, went so far as to encourage Rubio to get out of the race.
Martinez acknowledged that some conservatives don't like Crist, a popular governor who nonetheless has upset many conservatives by taking a "live and let live" approach to same-sex civil unions and by refusing to get involved in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case when he served as the state's attorney general.
"There's never going to be unanimity" in the part, Martinez said, adding that Crist might even attract some Democrats.
"We can look to broaden the party," Martinez said.
The reception for Crist couldn't be more different from the treatment given conservative Republican Pat Toomey in next year's Pennsylvania Senate race. Even after incumbent Republican Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and became a Democrat last month, Toomey — a former congressman — still hasn't received backing from the national party, which instead tried unsuccessfully to get Ridge to seek the seat and has since talked with another moderate, Rep. Jim Gerlach.
Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, said the group's primary goal is to win seats and that it is pursuing candidates who best fit their states. Although the organization rarely takes sides on competitive primaries, he said it wasn't establishing a new precedent by weighing in so early on Crist. He said the group would decide case-by-case whether to offer public support in other races.
Republicans, Cornyn said, must "get away from this attitude that people who disagree 20 or 30 percent of the time somehow are not welcome in the Republican Party, particularly if we're going to maintain our relevance and grow our numbers."
Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant, said the party's choices are being dictated largely by the states that are in play and by the candidates available. He said GOP leaders are taking the right approach by focusing on election results over ideology.
"Our party has the problem now that (Democrats) had in the 1970s, and that is our party base nominates candidates that are too far away from the electorate and cannot win," Stone said. "You can't win with just the right wing."
"I would rather have 51 percent of the Senate and get 70 percent of our agenda done, whereas conservatives sometimes would rather be 100 percent pure and get nothing done," he said.
Stemberger said that philosophy is what led the party to nominate McCain for president last year even though he had lukewarm backing from conservatives. Crist will be in a similar position if he wins the Senate primary, Stemberger said.
"What they've been doing hasn't worked," he said. "Conservatism didn't lose in 2008. There were no conservatives on the ballot to vote for."
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