When Charlie Crist, Florida’s popular governor, announced this week that he would run for the U.S. Senate, it was the best news the Republican Party has had in an otherwise unpleasant year.

The problem for the GOP is that its right wing quickly decided that the good news was very bad news indeed.

The elation and the desolation had the same source. Party insiders, fearing another difficult year in 2010, see Crist’s moderate image and warm personal style as just what they need to hold a Senate seat that became vulnerable with the retirement of incumbent Mel Martinez.

But conservatives, who have long mistrusted Crist, now loathe him for committing the cardinal sin of enthusiastically endorsing President Obama’s stimulus plan earlier this year. Among right-wing stalwarts, even using the word “stimulus” is a wicked act. They insist on the ugly locution “porkulus,” as in political pork.

Crist even embraced the president during a Florida rally in February, and the hug really got under the skin of the wingers. On Mike Thomas’ Orlando Sentinel blog, a commenter recently declared, in all capital letters: “I as a Republican, will never forget what Gov. Crist did, hugging and kissing Obama and taking all that stimulos (sic) money on TV.” Ouch.

Marco Rubio, the former Florida House speaker, will be the conservatives’ champion in the primary. In this age of instant communications, Rubio answered Crist’s announcement with an online ad in what might be called an abstract expressionist style.

As a kaleidoscopic picture of Crist’s appearance with Obama comes slowly into focus, the announcer intones against “some politicians” who “support trillions in reckless spending, borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children, and a terrible threat to a fragile economy.”

Keep an eye on Rubio, a bright, handsome 37-year-old son of Cuban immigrants. He was mentored by none other than former Gov. Jeb Bush. As soon as Crist announced, Florida political junkies went into overdrive speculating whether Bush would endorse Rubio and turn the primary into a brawl. Rubio is already being touted as the orthodox right’s answer to Obama, and even his adversaries respect his talents.

“Rubio will be scrappy; he’ll give him a run for his money; he’ll give Crist fits,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat who nonetheless expects Crist to prevail.

National Republican leaders certainly hope so because they went out on a limb for Crist almost as soon as he had finished his brief announcement (which, by the way, echoed Bill Clinton in touting the need to “put people first”).

Last week, John Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, promised not to endorse anyone in Florida’s Senate primary. But what’s a promise when a Senate seat is at stake? Cornyn came out for Crist, as did Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader. Rubio, on top of his technology, responded on Twitter. “It appears I won’t win the Washington, D.C., primary,” Rubio tweeted. “Lucky for me I am running in the Florida GOP primary.”

Conservative blogs were quick to take Cornyn to task. “Instead of trying to beat conservatives,” John J. Miller harrumphed on National Review’s “The Corner” blog, “the NRSC should save its resources for defeating Democrats.” Oh, this one will be fun.

It will also be deadly serious. With all the media attention that flows to the likes of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, it’s easy to forget that there are tough-minded Republican professionals who know the party’s ranks are shrinking. According to the exit polls, the proportion of Florida voters who call themselves Republicans fell from 41 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2008. And a Quinnipiac poll last month found that Crist’s net approval was marginally higher among Democrats than among those in his own party.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, said Cornyn has learned from Sen. Charles Schumer, who led the Democrats’ successful campaign to take back the Senate in 2006. Schumer was willing to battle local Democrats — his support for Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat in Pennsylvania, was emblematic — to force the nomination of the most electable candidate.

In fact, Crist can be highly flexible, and he may remind Florida conservatives that he was once known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for his advocacy of a return to roadside prison work crews.

Still, Florida will be one of the clearest tests of whether rank-and-file Republican voters are more interested in doctrinal purity, or in winning — even if it means nominating an Obama hugger.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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