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Crist's fall could signal GOP's shaky ground

Charlie Crist's likely bolt from the Republican Party is an early warning sign that some big problems are potentially lurking for the GOP for the midterms and beyond.
/ Source: NBC News

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced Thursday that he will drop out of the state's Republican Senate primary in favor of an independent bid for the seat.

Crist’s fall from the GOP's favor has been dramatic. Once considered a shoo-in for the seat, the prized recruit of the National Republican Senatorial Committee now trails by more than 20 points to an upstart former House speaker. Crist, strategists say, failed to take Republican challenger Marco Rubio seriously.

His decline is also one of a handful of examples of GOP races across the country in which the Republican Party’s internal ideological battle — a tug of war between the pragmatists and the purists — has been on full display.

Despite GOP's expected short-term gains this fall – largely owed to the nation’s high unemployment rate — problems still lurk for the party’s long-term stability. Republicans’ ideological civil war, the recent passage of a controversial Arizona immigration law, and an uncertain shortlist of Obama challengers all raise questions about its ability to compete on a presidential level.

“From a presidential perspective, we have real [expletive] problems,” said one GOP operative based in Washington, D.C., who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the state of the party frankly. “From a national candidate perspective, we have real problems.”

Moderates need not apply?
The GOP’s ideological fight has raged since President Barack Obama was elected in November of 2008. Bolstered by the Tea Party movement, GOP purists have argued for the purge of members who fail to adhere to strict conservative views. But some other Republicans worry that the quest for purity will eliminate candidates best equipped to prevail against Democratic opponents in a general election.

The schism has played out in midterm races across the country, and in Congress, where Republican leaders have made the 60 votes required to defeat a filibuster the threshold for governing. Armed with enough votes to block most legislation, they have largely shown an unwillingness to negotiate across the aisle.

Crist, who has been lambasted by his GOP opponent for supporting Obama’s economic stimulus plan last February, is not the only Republican who has been labeled by the right as not being conservative enough.

Three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is hardly considered a moderate in Washington but faces the very real prospect of being pushed out of his Republican primary contest by conservative opponents, who have slammed his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and his drafting of a bipartisan health care bill with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon. Bennett must finish first or second at the state’s convention on May 8 to make it to the primary, and polls show him lagging far behind.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the party’s standard-bearer in 2008 but bedeviled by the Tea Party movement, is also trying to fend off a challenge from the right in his re-election bid.

One GOP strategist said that the narrative about the party’s internecine struggles has been largely overstated by the media. And the idea that conservatives in the party have alienated independents, he said, is exaggerated as well.

“The independents we lost in ’06 and ’08 [are] with us, they’re leaning our way,” he said. But “the party has to be idea-based,” he warned, because support from independent voters is “still soft.”

The Hispanic problem
Perhaps even more than its split over ideology, the issue of immigration has exposed a fissure in the Republican Party that could portend the biggest potential problem for the GOP in the long term.

The immigration debate, largely dormant since a failed effort at reform in 2006, re-exploded onto the national scene last week after critics condemned a new Arizona immigration bill as the legalization of racial profiling of Hispanic-Americans.

GOP leaders, wary of alienating Hispanic voters by embracing the law, have been treading carefully. At a news conference on Monday, Minority Leader John Boehner avoided saying he agreed with the Arizona bill, noting only that "we respect the people of Arizona and their right to write their own laws."

Former Bush aide Karl Rove and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are among the Republicans who have joined Democrats in raising concerns about the constitutionality of the law.

And Rubio, who is Latino, warned about possible civil rights infringements, saying the law “could also unreasonably single out people who are here legally.” But, in the same statement, he was also quick to criticize Democratic leaders in Washington, warning that they might use the Arizona policy as “an excuse to try and jam through amnesty legislation.”

(One Republican who has spoken favorably about the law is McCain, who previously pushed for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. He called the bill “a step forward” and “a good tool.”)

Obama won Latinos by a 67 percent to 31 percent margin. They made up 9 percent of the electorate, but are the fastest-growing group in the country and are expected to make up an even larger percentage of the vote in 2012.

“We have problems, clearly, with Hispanics,” said the Republican operative who bemoaned the party’s 2012 woes. “If we do not manage an immigration bill appropriately, and we alienate Hispanics, Obama’s going to run up his numbers [with the group] in the 70s. That is not a sustainable model to win.”

Take me to your leader
Republicans are also struggling with what looks like a flawed presidential field of candidates in 2012.

Each of the talked-about GOP hopefuls has hurdles to the nomination. Mitt Romney could be plagued by his support of a Massachusetts health care bill despised by conservatives. Critics have used Mike Huckabee’s record of gubernatorial pardons to paint him as soft on crime. Tim Pawlenty faces a name recognition problem, and Newt Gingrich is saddled with political baggage from his tenure as speaker of the House in the 1990s. And the majority of Americans say Sarah Palin is not qualified to run.

“It is sort of remarkable to me that 2012 does look a little thin,” said political analyst Charlie Cook of The Cook Political Report. “The warts [of potential candidates] shouldn’t be so obvious from this far out.”

But regardless of who runs, it will be issues like the economy and Afghanistan that determine whether Obama is re-elected or not, Cook said.

“The way to look at 2012,” he said, “is voters will say, ‘Do I want to reelect him — yes, no or maybe. If no, then within reason it doesn’t matter who runs. If yes, it doesn’t matter who runs. It only becomes real relevant if it’s sort of a maybe.”

And that unemployment number will be the key. If unemployment is sitting at 8 percent, as White House economists have projected, the political environment for Obama could be harsh.

But the period between 1981 and 1984 — President Ronald Reagan’s first term — could be instructive to the current president’s fortunes. In January 1981, unemployment was 7.5 percent, rose to 8.5 percent by the end of the year, and by November 1982, it was 10.8 percent. That path closely matches the rise of unemployment during Obama’s presidency so far.

In 1982, Republicans lost 26 seats in the House and picked up one Senate seat in that midterm election; projections for 2010 are for Democrats to perform even more poorly.

But Reagan himself was re-elected with a record 525 electoral votes in 1984.

Still, Obama’s fate will largely be determined by voters’ gut feelings about the president who has led the country for the previous four years.

“Ultimately,” Cook said, “whether the president gets re-elected or not has to do with him.”

Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News.