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updated 11/16/2009 12:55:29 PM ET 2009-11-16T17:55:29

Grover Norquist has a blunt message for anyone already angling for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2012: Focus your energies on anything but next year’s midterm elections at your own risk.

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Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and one of the most influential voices in the modern conservative movement, says he will be keeping a close eye on the activities of potential candidates over the next year and will be sure to tell Republican voters who’s a team player and who’s out for themselves.

“We’re going to put together a list of all the people thinking of running for president and ... give assignments to each of the would-be presidential candidates. For instance, if the former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee would like to run and be thought of as a serious candidate he better win that Senate seat in Arkansas (held by Democrat Blanche Lincoln). He can raise the money for it, he can help turn it around. If he’s not willing to do that for the party, why should we spend any time thinking about him?” Norquist said in a Nov. 13 interview.

If former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani “wants to run (in 2012), then he should either run for governor himself (in 2010) or find somebody,” he added.

Norquist argued that while all the presumptive candidates for the Republican nomination have demonstrated an ability to look out for themselves financially and politically, he and other conservatives will be looking for a candidate who has also demonstrated a commitment to building both the conservative movement and the GOP.

“These guys can do this stuff in their own districts and states,” he said. “What we’re going to be putting out is how many people have they campaigned for ... what have they done for the party? They will all do unending stuff for themselves. That’s never a question. The question is, ‘What will they do to help the broader movement?’ I think any of these guys running for president who focuses on anything other than 2010 should be horse-whipped.

“After 2010 you can have a polite conversation about who should be president in 2012,” he continued. “But until then the only thing you’re doing is sucking oxygen out of the room. And you’re not being helpful. If you’re the governor of Indiana and you want to be presidential, don’t send me a press release about how you didn’t raise taxes. Beat (Sen.) Evan Bayh, D-Ind. Then I’d say, ‘Hey, there’s a guy to talk to.’ ”

But Norquist also had an equally strong message for conservative activists — warning that they should not look to enforce ideological purity tests on candidates but rather support the most “Reaganite” person who has a legitimate chance of winning the race.

“My view is every Republican should wish for the most Reaganite candidate that can win the general in your state, which is different in Maine than in Texas,” he said. “The most Reaganite candidate who can win in the general — that’s who you want. And that’s going to be a different person in Connecticut than in Nevada. We’re not going to throw away the more electable guy than the less electable guy if the difference is 75 and 70 on some sort of vote rating.”

Norquist pointed to the results of the recent special election in New York’s 23rd District, where Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman forced Republican Dede Scozzafava out of the race after conservatives hammered her record. Despite heavy spending on the race by outside parties, Hoffman ultimately lost the election to Democrat Bill Owens — the first time the district has been represented by a Democrat in more than a century.

While Norquist argued that the particulars of the New York race are unlikely to be repeated in other contests, a similar fight is taking place in Florida’s Republican Senate primary, where conservative former state Speaker Marco Rubio is taking on more moderate Gov. Charlie Crist, the favorite of many party leaders.

“There are two questions on that,” Norquist said. “Can the challenger win the general? If you’re asking me to boot the guy we expect to win the primary that’s too liberal and you give me someone else, can the somebody else win? And two, is the guy you’re asking me to boot a 90 percenter and just not perfect, or does he just not pass the laugh test for being an R?”

Ultimately, Florida Republicans will have to ask themselves, “Can Rubio win the general? Or is he like Hoffman and cannot win the general?” Norquist explained, adding that he thinks the primary fight could be good for the GOP.

“I think there’ll be a healthy debate in Florida,” Norquist said, arguing that these sorts of fights help bring new, energetic blood into the party. “It’s helpful for the Republicans to have these waves of guys to come in.”

CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500

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