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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to run for the Senate is putting the Republican Party's anti-stimulus stand to the test, with Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele backing away from a threat to punish candidates who supported President Obama's signature economic recovery program.
For some Republicans heading into the 2010 elections, opposition to the giant $787 billion spending bill that Mr. Obama signed in February was seen as a litmus test for success, analogous to the opposition to President Clinton's 1993 tax increases that helped fuel a Republican congressional takeover a year later.
The February stimulus vote "was a stand-up moment for every Republican," Mr. Steele told a recent party rally in Wisconsin. About Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, whose defection to the Democrats earlier this month was in large part a result of his pro-stimulus vote, Mr. Steele said, "You voted yourself out of the party. We didn't kick you out."
But Mr. Crist's public embrace of the stimulus plan - including a joint appearance with Mr. Obama to hail the spending package - is clashing with the party's desperate drive to hold on to the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Mel Martinez.
Key national Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who chairs the party's 2010 senatorial campaign, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky quickly endorsed Mr. Crist - despite his pro-stimulus stance - in advance of a potential primary fight.
Mr. Steele, despite his previous statements, said he won't be playing favorites as Florida Republicans choose their nominee.
RNC Communications Director Trevor Francis said in an e-mail that party rules "prohibit the Republican National Committee from contributing to or otherwise assisting pre-primary candidates without the prior written approval of the state party chairman, the national committeeman, and the national committeewoman. Unless that happens, and [the rule] is invoked, Chairman Steele and the RNC won't pick sides in the Florida Senate race."
Republicans are still betting that the stimulus vote will prove politically toxic for Democrats and point to 1993 as precedent. Democrats who backed President Clinton's tax-raising budget that year were among the major casualties as Republicans seized control of the Senate and House a year later.
Those protesting high government spending under Mr. Obama are "the same people who turned out in 1992 for Ross Perot and were the new voters that showed up in 1994 when we won the majority," said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, a leader of the recent nationwide "tea party" anti-spending rallies.
In the recent New York special House election, the failure of Republican candidate Jim Tedisco to come out strongly against Mr. Obama's spending plan cost him the seat, said Tom Lewis, Mr. Tedisco's campaign finance chairman.
"I really believe he would have won if he would have said he opposed it and could have been the spokesman for the 178 congressmen who voted 'no.' He would have gotten more national attention and as a consequence would have raised more money," Mr. Lewis said.
Even in Florida, Mr. Crist's just-announced Senate candidacy faces a determined primary challenge from state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has circulated an ad slamming the stimulus package and showing a photo of Mr. Obama and Mr. Crist shaking hands.
Mr. Crist rolled up a dominating 54 percent to 8 percent lead over Mr. Rubio among Republican voters in a Quinnipiac University poll last month, but the Cuban-born Mr. Rubio shows no signs of backing down from an August 2010 primary showdown.
The same poll found that more Republicans (25 percent) disapproved of Mr. Crist's performance as governor than did Democrats (20 percent), with unhappiness over the governor's stimulus stance cited as a key reason.
And with state party rules allowing only registered Republicans to vote in Florida's primary race, "it's not outside the realm of possibilities that [Mr. Rubio] can win just because ... Crist does have problems with party conservatives," consultant Roger Stone told the Associated Press.
Republicans like Manchester, N.H., Mayor Frank Guinta hope to exploit anti-stimulus sentiment as he seeks to oust two-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat. She supported the stimulus bill, a vote Mr. Guinta says isn't compatible with "New Hampshire values."
"In New Hampshire, we have a sense of frugality. We have a sense of pulling up our own bootstraps. ... That is in direct contrast to what's going on in Congress, and how our congresswoman is voting," Mr. Guinta said in a recent conference call.
Mrs. Shea-Porter, a former social worker, narrowly won a second term last year in a district with sizable pockets of Republican and blue-collar Democratic voters. Critical to her win was the large majority she won in Manchester - Mr. Guinta's political base.
Democrats say a rerun of the 1993-94 elections is unlikely, and point to Mr. Tedisco's loss in New York to newcomer Scott Murphy, who strongly supported the stimulus bill from the start of his victorious campaign. That certainty contrasted starkly with Mr. Tedisco, who initially refused to take a position before ultimately saying he would have voted against the bill.
"Scott Murphy had a remarkable, come-from-behind special election victory in an upstate New York district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 70,000 in large part because of his strong support for President Obama's economic recovery package," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Ryan Rudominer.
Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.