Fourteen minutes after Gov. Charlie Crist announced his U.S. Senate bid, the national Republican party endorsed him over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
The rare and speedy intervention Tuesday by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a contested primary signaled the party's confidence that Crist will keep the seat in GOP hands. With Democrats poised to clinch a filibuster-proof majority, the Republican political establishment was looking for a name-brand candidate and proven fundraiser.
''While I believe Marco Rubio has a very bright future within the Republican Party, Charlie Crist is the best candidate in 2010 to ensure that we maintain the checks and balances that Floridians deserve in the United States Senate,'' Texas Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the NRSC, said in a written statement.
But nationwide, there are scattered signs that the GOP is not completely united behind Crist, who campaigned alongside President Barack Obama in Fort Myers for the Democrat's spending plan earlier this year.
'Just what we need, a `soft, friendly' moderate GOP member. . . BARF,'' quipped popular conservative talk show host Glenn Beck online.
As Republicans struggle to latch on to a potent line of attack against the popular Democratic administration, the Crist-Rubio primary is widely seen as a proxy for the broader struggle between the party's moderate and conservative wings.
''We have in Florida, playing out for the United States Senate, the same fight playing out nationally -- should the GOP become more like the Democrats or should the GOP be a party dedicated to the right of each person to make himself in the world?'' wrote RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson, a Rubio supporter.
The weight of the national party behind Crist's bid makes it a lopsided battle. Cornyn's endorsement was followed by nods from other top Senate Republicans as well as U.S. Reps. Connie Mack and Vern Buchanan of southwest Florida -- both of whom considered and ruled out Senate bids.
''Gov. Crist is exactly what we need because if we don't increase the size of our tent, we're going to be in big trouble in our future,'' said Joe Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party and Buchanan's political director.
But Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro, who helped 2008 presidential nominee John McCain with Hispanic outreach, said the party's decision to dismiss Rubio could backfire.
''They have paid all this lip service to how desperately Republicans need to build bridges with the Hispanic community and young people, but a 37-year-old Hispanic running for statewide office gets the door slammed in his face,'' Navarro said.
''If that's what the Republican Party is going to do we better get used to being in the minority for a long time,'' she said.