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The Tea Party claims a serious scalp

Mark Mardell | 07:23 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

Tallahassee, Florida

Preston Scott opens his show on WFLA Talk Radio with the typical break-neck patter of the right-wing radio host. He's as slick on air as he is thoughtful, intellectual when the red light goes off. Today he's also a man who feels he's achieved something worthwhile.

The Tea Party movement is on the verge of claiming its first major scalp, opting for conservative purity rather than the certainty of Republican victory. And a very well coiffured, silver scalp it is too, belonging to Florida's Governor Charlie Crist.

Charlie Crist will stand as an independent

For Mr Crist is to announce he's abandoning his attempt to stand as a Republican candidate for the Senate and will instead fight as an independent (or "non affiliated" for any pedants or wonks among you: there is already a Florida Independent Party).

Preston Scott tells me why he has campaigned against the governor: "He doesn't really stand for anything. I've described him as a political windsock. Wherever the political winds blow, that's where he is. Many of us have grown tired of that."

I suggest that may be the definition of a good politician, someone who listens to the mood of the people.

"It may be, but it's not the definition of a candidate who is acceptable to people like me anymore."

He adds: "The [Republican] party has decided it has to win elections. I believe it has to win hearts and minds and with ideas that are based on rock solid conservative principles."

Mr Crist is standing as an independent because it is obvious he would be beaten by Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida Senate, the son of working class Cuban immigrants.

He came from 6% in the polls in the internal party race to be 20% ahead now. But that may not be reflected in the autumn election for the Senate itself. The one poll that has been published suggests that Mr Crist, who will make it clear he is not leaving the Republican party and would vote with them if elected, would win that race.

That doesn't bother the Tea Party supporters I have spoken to here. Some believe it is important the Republican party sticks to its most important principles, others give the impression they don't give two hoots about the party itself as long someone represents their values, whatever label they have.

I get a very different view in Florida's political power house. Many state capitols look like delightfully shrunken down versions of the one in Washington. Florida's is more like an international hotel built by communists. Still, the fourth floor has a traditional political buzz. The rotunda between the chambers of the Senate and the House is abuzz with lobbyists. On the circular marble walls are carved "Florida facts" such as the state beverage (orange juice), animal (Florida panther) and butterfly (zebra longwing). If it had a space for "Republican strategist", Florida facts would probably say Mac Stipanovich.

He helped Reagan win Florida, was a chief of staff for one governor and helped several others to power. He's a long time friend of Charlie Crist. He tells me he started out as "a head banger" but now sees himself as a moderate. I ask what he thinks is happening in the party he has worked so hard for.

"After the electoral defeats in the last election cycle, Obama's victory, Republicans entered a period of re-examination, angst and conflict. People talk about a battle for the soul of the party. Florida is ground zero in that battle. Are the party doctrinaires going to be able to describe more exclusively what it means to be a Republican?"

His answer to his own question is that for a while they are. But he feels the desire for ideological purity is driven not only by anger at defeat, but anger at the recession, and will lessen if the economy improves.

But I ask Preston Scott if the party has to move to the right, with the hint of a threat from those who are loyal to an idea, not a party.

"I don't think it has a choice. As we are talking of Marco Rubio, he put it very well, we have one Democratic party, we don't need two of them. If the Republican party wants to remain a viable party and not give rise or birth to a viable third party it has no choice but to move right."

Some will argue this is just another battle in a war that has raged for 50 years or more. It will have one climax here in Florida in November, but I suspect it will rage well into 2012 and indeed beyond.

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