In Monday's front-page story, "A Surefire Florida Republican Becomes a Right-Wing Target," reporter Kate Zernike forecast the fierce Florida fight for a Senate seat between moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and conservative Marco Rubio, former spaker of the Florida House of Representatives.
The story's sharp ideological tone is not surprising from reporter Kate Zernike, who has mustered many defenses of losing Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry both pre- and post-election.
The ideological clashing started in the headline. By contrast, when left-wing anti-war candidate Ned Lamont challenged Sen. Joe Lieberman for his Connecticut Senate seat in 2006 over his support for the Iraq War, the Times headline was more benign: "Lieberman Faces a Challenge from the Left." No hostile "targeting" was seen by the Times back then.
On Monday, Zernike compared "Republican pragmatists" to conservatives who enforce "party orthodoxy."
In retrospect, even Charlie Crist admits that "the optics" of The Hug are not great.
It was in the glow of a new day in politics last February when Mr. Crist, this state's popular Republican governor, took the stage with President Obama and declared that Republicans and Democrats had to rise above partisanship in support of an economic stimulus. And Mr. Obama embraced him.
Now, as a season of tea parties and fractious town hall meetings has energized the right wing, that embrace has endangered what once seemed like Mr. Crist's surefire bid for a Senate seat and put Florida at the center of a debate about the future of the Republican Party.
Republican pragmatists argue that to take back its majority, the party has to appeal to a broader range of voters, even if it means running candidates who might stray from the party orthodoxy.
Conservatives counter that Republicans have become Democrats' enablers in bigger deficits and bigger government, and that the way to win is to sharpen the distinctions between the parties.
A raft of conservative groups, commentators and politicians are supporting a primary challenge to Mr. Crist by Marco Rubio, a telegenic former speaker of the Florida House christened a Reaganite's answer to Mr. Obama by The National Review.
Either Zernike or a copy editor betrayed a less-than-perfect knowledge of the conservative movement: The magazine's name is actually National Review, without the "The."
Zernike's taxonomy is overloaded with rather redundant "conservative" labels:
Mr. Crist, who has been endorsed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is seen by these conservatives as too moderate - even liberal - in his judicial appointments and his support of policies like cap and trade for emissions that contribute to global warming and restoring voting rights to ex-felons.
"Florida is a hill to die on for conservatives," said Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative blog RedState.com, which leads a daily drumbeat against Mr. Crist. "This is the clearest example we have of these two competing concepts."
Zernike suggested that some pretty standard political give-and-take between establishment pols and activists (which happens among Democratics too) has been unusually rough as performed by Florida conservatives. Zernike also labeled Doug Hoffman, a conventional conservative candidate who ran and narrowly lost as an Independent in a special election in upstate New York two weeks ago, as "far right."
It may be a principled debate, but it is not shaping up as a polite one.
As Mr. Crist was introduced at the Ronald Reagan Black Tie and Blue Jeans Barbeque at an open-air rodeo in this Central Florida town this month, hecklers with Rubio bumper stickers on their backs called out, "Go Hug Obama!"
People posting on FreeRepublic.com mock Mr. Crist as Charlie Loafers. "Charlie Crist Delenda Est," declared a RedState headline: "Charlie Crist must be destroyed."
Conservative and moderate Republicans take very different lessons from this month's special Congressional election in upstate New York, in which a third-party conservative challenged the moderate Republican candidate. In the end, a Democrat won the seat in the historically Republican district after the Republican dropped out under pressure from the right and then endorsed the Democrat.
Republicans took it as evidence that candidates from the far right cannot win. But conservatives say their candidate would have prevailed if the establishment had been smart enough to put its money behind him, rather than a Republican they argue was a Democrat in thin disguise.
But, hounded by conservative bloggers, [Republican Sen. John] Cornyn announced this month that [the National Republican Senatorial Committee] did not plan to spend any money in the primary. The committee does not usually spend in primaries; the need for such a statement spoke to the heat of the race, 10 months before primary day.