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Florida Republican party chairman quits amid splits

By Jane Sutton

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's moderate Republican Party chairman said on Tuesday he would resign to help end a rift with conservatives that threatened to tear the party apart ahead of crucial elections in November.

Several prominent party donors, officeholders and committee members had urged Jim Greer to step down, accusing him of misspending the party's shrinking election war chest.

In a conference call with reporters, Greer denied the accusations. He said a small but vocal group of opponents were determined to either force him out or "burn down the house and try and destroy the Republican Party."

"I cannot be a participant in the shredding and tearing of the fabric of the Republican Party," he said. "This distraction, these attacks on each other within the party is not what we should be doing."

He had expected to face a no-confidence vote at the state party's annual meeting in Orlando on Saturday. Instead, the party is expected to choose a successor. The resignation takes effect on February 20.

Democrats control the U.S. Congress, but support for Democratic President Barack Obama has fallen in recent months, fueling Republicans' hopes for gains in the November congressional and senate races. The party out of power usually picks up congressional seats in mid-term elections.

Greer has actively supported moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist, his longtime friend, in his bid for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat.

But Crist is facing a tough challenge for his party's nomination from Marco Rubio, a favorite of the party's ultraconservative wing.

Greer portrayed the rift as part of the Republicans' national debate over whether the party should adhere to pure, conservative principles or reach out to moderates.

"I believe that our party stands for principles and values that should always allow everyone who has an interest in being part of our party to participate," he said.

In his three years as Republican chairman in the nation's fourth most populous state, Greer said he had widened the party's outreach. "I have tried to get Republicans and leaders of the party to think about making sure there were no cultural or ethnic barriers to being a Republican," he said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine issued a statement calling Greer's ouster a "right-wing led coup."

"Anyone who was wondering if Republican leaders possessed the power to curb the extremism of the far right and channel it into a productive force has their answer today in the silence and lack of support from national Republicans as Jim Greer departs in the midst of this GOP civil war," Kaine said.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alan Elsner)

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