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Florida GOP Infighting Means Trouble For Gov. Crist

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Florida GOP Infighting Means Trouble For Gov. Crist

Florida GOP Infighting Means Trouble For Gov. Crist

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Democrats aren't the only ones dealing with dissent in the ranks. Republicans are also facing unrest. The latest shake-up came this week in Florida. The state party chairman was forced to resign by Republican dissidents. The chairman is a man closely linked to Florida's moderate governor, Charlie Crist, as NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: Many say it began with the hug; a brief embrace Florida Governor Charlie Crist received from President Obama when they appeared together last February. But the fault lines in Florida's GOP began to widen over the summer. That's when Chairman Jim Greer attempted to throw the party's endorsement behind Crist, who had announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio was already campaigning for the Senate nomination when Crist decided he wanted the job. Palm Beach County GOP Chair Sid Dinerstein says, for many in the party, Greer's move crossed the line.

Mr. SID DINERSTEIN (GOP Chairman, Palm Beach County): When Greer tried to literally muscle Rubio out of the race, the party said no more, and that led to a revolution.

ALLEN: Through the fall, the attacks against Greer built and this week, he said he was stepping down. In a conference call with reporters, Greer said his critics have just two goals.

Mr. JIM GREER (GOP Chairman, Florida): And the first one is, remove me as chairman, and if that doesn't work, burn the house down and try and destroy the Republican Party.

ALLEN: For Democrats who have their own troubles, the turmoil here in Florida's Republican Party has been welcome. Democratic National Committee Chair Tim Kaine called it a civil war and a quest to, quote, eliminate moderate voices and enact an extreme right-wing agenda.

Much of the unrest here comes from conservatives, many of them Rubio supporters. But Bill Bunting, a former county chair and Greer critic from Pasco County, north of Tampa, says the insurrection is less about ideology than party politics. County committeemen felt they were being ignored.

Mr. BILL BUNTING (Former County Chairman, Pasco County): These are the people that organize the bases in their counties: do the mailings, stuff the envelopes, call the precinct people, the phone banks, open up more offices at election time. And what you were doing is, you were taking away their right.

ALLEN: Bunting and other Republicans in Florida are hoping the party can quickly unify behind a new chairman. But even after a new chairman is chosen, the split in Florida's Republican Party will remain. It's on full display in the high-profile Senate race pitting Crist against Rubio. In recent months, what had been seen as a long-shot bid by Rubio has now turned into a competitive race. Rubio has closed the gap, and one poll shows him tied with Crist.

A return to stability in party leadership will help Crist by putting a nagging problem behind him. But Palm Beach County GOP Chair Sid Dinerstein says he believes Crist's problems are much bigger than who's running the state party.

Mr. DINERSTEIN: Charlie has refused to debate Marco Rubio and yet, the national issues are at the top of everybody's agenda. We need these people in the same room, talking to the voters of this state about health care and cap-and-trade and amnesty and all the issues.

ALLEN: Up to now, Crist has campaigned on his record as governor, and has mostly declined to appear with Rubio in candidate forums. If the race remains competitive, that will probably change. Meanwhile, Rubio's momentum looks likely to continue at least through next month, when he's been invited to appear on a high-profile national platform, as the keynote speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference - CPAC - in Washington.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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