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Analysis: Bitter primaries will test GOP moderates

WASHINGTON - The plight of Florida's Charlie Crist, a Republican governor who apparently can't win his own party's Senate primary, underscores the divisions dogging an otherwise emboldened national GOP.

Races in all corners of the country raise the question whether moderate candidates have a future in a party imposing ideological purity, and whether the GOP can attract moderate voters. In Senate races in Florida, Arizona, Utah, Kentucky and New Hampshire, conservatives backed by tea party activists are challenging centrist candidates largely preferred by the party establishment in Washington.

Such bitter primaries are threatening the GOP's fortunes even though, by nearly every other measure, political winds are blowing against Democrats for this fall's midterm elections.

And ramifications of the GOP family feud could extend beyond November, to the presidential election in 2012. The Republican Party already is facing declining membership and a diminished geographic foothold as it has moved further to the right.

If middle-of-the-road candidates are driven out of the party, how can the GOP attract moderates and independents? Do those voters, already the most likely to be turned off by politics, simply stay home? Or do they turn out for independent, making the two-party structure less relevant?

Still, party politics is hardly the only issue likely to sway votes in the fall. The economy is at the top of most voters' lists.

The Democrats face their own nasty Senate primary in Arkansas, where moderate Sen. Blanche Lincoln is trying to fend off union-backed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. In North Carolina, a labor group angry with moderate House Democrats over their health care votes has formed a third party, now struggling to get candidates on the ballot. But those largely are isolated cases.

The GOP moderate-conservative feuds have been fierce since long before the emergence of the tea party movement.

No race epitomizes the GOP fracture more than the ugly Florida contest between Marco Rubio, the former state House speaker embraced by conservatives and tea party activists, and Crist, a moderate considered for the presidential ticket in 2008.

Crist has dropped from favored Republican to outcast with a double-digit deficit. Polls suggest Crist could win as an independent in a three-way race. Rep. Kendrick Meek is the likely Democratic nominee.

National Republicans are pressuring Crist to quit rather than run as an independent.

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