As Pawlenty Goes To Florida, Dems Ask The Rubio/Crist Question

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With Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) traveling to Florida for a speaking engagement tomorrow in Naples, Florida Democrats are looking to put him on the spot with a question that's sure to divide many Republicans in 2010: Rubio or Crist?

The Florida Democratic Party will send out a press release this afternoon (full text below), asking who Pawlenty will choose to endorse in the state's GOP Senate primary--Gov. Charlie Crist, a centrist with statewide recognition and a wide appeal to voters, or Marco Rubio, the upstart who has become an inadvertent standard bearer for the conservative movement.

It can be a touchy question.

The primary has already drawn some battle lines in Washington, DC, with National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn endorsing Crist and conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the Club for Growth, and bloggers at RedState and Townhall throwing their support behind Rubio, who has become an incidental standard-bearer for conservative ideology and a pure-conservative future for the national GOP.

As Rubio has become a darling of conservatives, endorsing him will become a conservative credential in and of itself--and those credentials, at this point, are at a premium in the ongoing race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Conservatives across the country, one can assume, will want their 2012 candidates to endorse Rubio. No one wants to anger the conservative grassroots right now, and backing Rubio has a big upside.

So conventional wisdom says Rubio pick up endorsements from several of the potential contenders, except Newt Gingrich (who has made his preference for pragmatic centrism known). But if the failed candidacy of Hoffman in New York offers a broader lesson, it might be that pure-conservative candidates aren't as viable as one might think--and that endorsing them doesn't make one look like a complete genius...just a conservative.

Pawlenty has already gotten into the endorsement game. He launched his Freedom First PAC in October, with the goal of raising money to dole out to GOP candidates, and he followed in Sarah Palin's footsteps in throwing his support behind the last conservative litmus test, Conservative Party candidate and sudden national star Doug Hoffman, in New York's 23rd district special election--who eventually lost to Democrat Bill Owens.

But Pawlenty's recent tacks to the right haven't gone unnoticed--most recently, The Washington Post's Dan Balz reported on them--and Pawlenty took some criticism for implying Sen. Olympia Snowe might not belong in the Republican Party, given her centrist stances. A further step to the right won't go unnoticed, either.

Rubio, meanwhile, has already voiced his affinity for Palin, telling CBS News, "I can't think of anything her and I disagree [on]," and has already picked up some of the same endorsements Hoffman did.

So, for 2012 contenders like Pawlenty, it's a question that's sure to come up more than once between now and next August, when the primary will be held--and probably after that, too.

Florida Democrats, apparently, don't think it's too soon to start asking. And any other GOP contender who travels to Florida should probably expect it, too.

Here's the full text of their release:

Tallahassee, FL - As Minn. Gov. and Presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty prepares to visit Naples Friday, Floridians will be asking, which candidate will Pawlenty endorse in the Florida Republican Senate primary? 

Following his endorsement of the Sarah Palin- and Glenn Beck-backed Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd Congressional district, will Pawlenty choose to endorse his fellow Governor Charlie Crist, or will he endorse the Club for Growth-backed Marc Rubio?  Or maybe he will simply wait until a week after Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck make an endorsement to decide, like he did in New York?  In his own words, Tim Pawlenty says the purpose of his Freedom First PAC is to help Republicans win elections, and having failed to help his candidate win in New York, who will he endorse in Florida?

"After the GOP ate its own in New York's 23rd Congressional District, the far-right wing of the Republican Party has turned its attention to Florida's Senate race, unleashing its furor on Gov. Charlie Crist, promising a GOP civil war in our state. Tim Pawlenty is traveling across the country for what he claims is to raise money to 'help Republicans win elections' - well Governor, there is no more contentious Republican primary than in Florida, and it will be interesting to see who Pawlenty gives his money to. From looking at his record of pandering to the radical right in recent months, you might think Rubio has the upper-hand, but Pawlenty may have learned his lesson from endorsing the far-right candidate in New York. Then again, Pawlenty's pandering to the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world could be too important to his national ambitions," said Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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