- The Washington Times - Monday, June 29, 2009

The Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group, is considering running ads in the Republican Party’s Senate primary race against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for supporting higher state taxes and President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus spending package.

Mr. Crist’s opponent for the Republican Party’s nomination next year is former state Speaker of the House Marco Rubio, a young conservative running on cutting government spending and taxes who recently met here with the Club for Growth, which has a strong reputation for defeating liberal and moderate Republicans in party primaries with its aggressive ad campaigns.

“We recently interviewed Marco Rubio and were impressed. We are very concerned about the two major tax increases Charlie Crist recently signed and believe there’s no excuse for his active support of the Obama big-government ‘stimulus’ spending bill,” said David Keating, the club’s executive director. “We are actively considering the race.”

“There’s not a set timeline for endorsement, but we look forward to completing our research on his record and that of his opponent, as well as our assessment of the competitiveness of this race before making a decision,” Mr. Keating said.

Mr. Rubio is largely unknown among the state’s voters, and the latest head-to-head polls show the popular governor with a large early lead over him. But the party’s base is very conservative, and the Rubio campaign believes that in a state that has no income tax, Mr. Crist will be vulnerable on fiscal and tax issues once his recent actions are more widely known.

“There are stark differences between the candidates on fiscal issues,” said Alex Burgos, chief spokesman for the Rubio campaign. “The governor signed a budget on May 27 that included $800 million in fee increases and a $1-per-pack cigarette-tax increase.”

Mr. Rubio, on the other hand, called for eliminating all property taxes on primary residences and replacing them with a controversial flat consumption - or sales - tax modeled in part on the Fair Tax proposal at the federal level. Grover Norquist, the tax-cut crusader who heads Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), praised the idea, calling Mr. Rubio “the most pro-taxpayer legislative leader in the country.”

The organization “expressed disappointment that Gov. Charlie Crist went against his commitment to Floridians and broke his pledge as governor to oppose and veto any and all tax increases.”

“The news was particularly surprising since two weeks ago, Gov. Crist also signed the federal Taxpayer Protection Pledge in his race for the U.S. Senate,” ATR said in a statement.

But Mr. Norquist said Friday that “both Rubio and Crist have signed ATR’s pledge against all federal tax increases going forward” and each candidates said he would abide by that pledge.

Mr. Crist remains the odds-on favorite to win next year’s Senate primary and to keep the seat in the Republican Party’s column, but the Club for Growth says its “membership has never been higher,” and the grass-roots group has acquired a reputation for winning upsets in party primaries, though not always with good results in the general election.

For example, the club last year opposed incumbent Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the Republican primary. He lost to Andrew P. Harris, who then was defeated narrowly in the general election by Democrat Frank Kratovil Jr. after Mr. Gilchrest crossed party lines to endorse him.

Most of the club’s victories have been in congressional districts where it’s cheaper and easier to have an impact. Some Republican strategists question just how effective the club could be in one of the costliest media-market states in the country and whether it could spend the kind of money needed to affect the race.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), recruited Mr. Crist, a proven statewide vote-getter, who was seen as the only candidate capable of winning in a state that has become much more politically competitive lately.

Asked to comment about the Club for Growth’s possible decision to challenge Mr. Crist in the primary, NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said, “The Senate is the firewall to prevent the Democrats from having unchecked power in Washington. So it’s our hope that all Republicans will work together and keep their eye on the goal, which is defeating Democrat Senate candidates and winning back seats next year.”

The Florida governor’s campaign was asked to respond to the Club for Growth’s plans but did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

• Donald Lambro can be reached at dlambro@washingtontimes.com.old.

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