Crist's Senate run provokes backlash in his party

TALLAHASSEE — A Republican backlash is brewing against the state and national party as they anoint Gov. Charlie Crist's U.S. Senate campaign — thereby dissing that of his rival, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

From South Florida to Tampa Bay, a few county Republican parties are discussing or passing resolutions telling the state party to butt out of the Senate race or any other primary.

If the state party presses forward, Crist's election could be rockier than expected and his hand-picked Republican Party of Florida chairman, Jim Greer, could find it tougher to hold on to power.

''I like Jim Greer, but the ball is in his court. He needs to level the playing field,'' said Palm Beach County Republican chairman Sid Dinerstein.

''If he doesn't level the playing field,'' Dinerstein said, "we have a serious problem in the Republican Party of Florida and we'll have to straighten it out at our July meeting. The press might want to be there for that.''

Hillsborough County's Republican Party passed a resolution Thursday demanding that the state party remain neutral. Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, Pasco and Hernando counties might follow suit.

The wave of resolutions was fueled by reports that Greer was talking with GOP higher-ups about whether to invoke party ''Rule 11'' to expressly endorse Crist.

Greer couldn't be reached for comment. Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Katie Gordon said the discussions about ''Rule 11'' were preliminary. She downplayed the state party's potential involvement by pointing out that the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Crist's candidacy within minutes of the governor's campaign announcement Tuesday.

Greer hasn't pushed for the invoking of Rule 11, and will take into account the input of county Republicans if they want the state party to remain neutral, Gordon said. Still, she pointed out, Greer is good friends with Crist.

''We have a governor who has a demonstrated record, an almost 75 percent approval rating and a very good chance at winning that Senate seat,'' Gordon said. "Why would we not want to support him?''

For his part, Rubio said he just wants Republican leaders to "give me a shot.''

Right now, polls and insiders suggest that Crist will have an easy time dispatching any rival in the 2010 primary or general election. But if the backlash against the party turns into a revolt, the primary might not be the cakewalk for Crist because Florida has closed primaries dominated by the conservative wing of the party.

Broward County state Republican committee man Ed Kennedy said Crist's embrace of President Barack Obama and his stimulus package cost him points with conservatives. And Palm Beach's Dinerstein said Crist and Greer's decision not to fully back a Republican congressional candidate embittered some Republicans.

But other Republicans, such as Orange County Republican Chairman Lew Oliver, said the counties should stay out of the fray.

One of the people needed to invoke the rule favoring Crist, national Committeewoman Sharon Day, said she doesn't support the idea.

''I think you're seeing a backlash because people were astounded that we would want to do this. Marco Rubio's not David Duke,'' she said, referring to the former Klansman from Louisiana. "The party faithful just want to have a primary. Marco Rubio is a credible candidate.''

Times/Herald Staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.