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How important is Florida's Republican primary? Very.

3:10 PM, Jan 6, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Mark Leibovich's cover story in Sunday's Times magazine, on the Florida Senate GOP fight between Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, is online:

Crist wants to fill the seat vacated in September by Mel Martinez, also a Republican. His Democratic opponent in the fall would likely be Representative Kendrick Meek. But first Crist must survive a civil war: a Republican primary fight against Marco Rubio, the 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida House who has become a cause célèbre of the national conservative movement and drew even with Crist last month in a Rasmussen poll (after trailing the governor by almost 30 percentage points over the summer). Crist has become a conservative scourge, for reasons he seems at a loss to understand and that in some ways have nothing to do with him.

It is not uncommon for a party out of power to undergo an identity crisis and an internal bloodletting, and it is Crist’s bad luck that his race in 2010 fits the frame of a philosophical debate that has been fulminating in the Republican Party for several months. The race, and the national debate, pits the governing pragmatists against the ideological purists. The purists say that a Republican revival depends on hewing to conservative ideas, resisting compromise and generally taking a dim view of government. Tea Party rallies are filled with such purists, whose populist icons — Sarah PalinRush Limbaugh, Fox News’s Glenn Beck — tend to be unburdened by the pressures of governing through a recession.

Not long ago, Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, summed up the purity side this way: “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.” And when I asked Rubio recently which current senator he most admires, he said DeMint.

This is the conventional view, which sees the Florida primary fight as testing the strength of Tea Party politics. True enough. But such a view circumscribes Rubio's appeal. He is, after all, the protegé of Jeb Bush -- a successful governing conservative, but not exactly a populist. And Crist's record of "governing pragmatism" is not without blotches. What's more, one man's "governing pragmatism" is another's "unprincipled poll-chasing." Besides, is it impossible to govern successfully while holding on to a set of core values? No, it isn't.

The Florida primary race is important for many reasons: the result could signal a generational shift in the GOP leadership, it could launch a major star into national politics, and it could herald the fusion of Tea Party enthusiasm with a policy-heavy approach to market-based governance (this is why Rep. Paul Ryan's endorsement of Rubio is important).

All the races this year will determine the partisan composition of government; but is there another that has such heavy import for the conservative future?

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