MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
As he mingles with his hometown supporters, the Plant City Republican promises to fight for lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense.
PLANT CITY - Minutes after declaring he can be elected to the U.S. Senate and fight for "common sense, conservative values," Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd strapped on an electric guitar and strummed the chords to Johnnie B. Goode.
It was a fitting moment for Byrd, who on Saturday held his first campaign kickoff event at Grandpa Johnson's BBQ Restaurant with hometown supporters, many of whom follow the 52-year-old Republican like a rock star.
Make that a clean-living rock star.
"He comes off as a leader, but also someone you can talk to," said Sue Brady, a retiree who has lived in Plant City the past 20 years. "He's a family man, but more importantly, he's a Christian man, and I like that."
During a five-minute speech, Byrd promised lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense.
"We don't need Vermont, Massachusetts or New York values," Byrd said as the crowd cheered.
Rather than take swipes at state Sen. Daniel Webster or former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, both Republican candidates for the same Senate seat, Byrd took aim at Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Ted Kennedy and the United Nations.
"Who do you trust to fight the war on terror?" Byrd asked the crowd. "Hillary Clinton and the United Nations or George W. Bush and a Republican senator from Florida?"
It's been a busy few months for the Byrd campaign. Between July and September, Byrd raised $846,000 for his bid, more than either Webster or McCollum. But all three candidates appeal to the same voter base, and many at Saturday's event wondered how Byrd would extend his reach beyond his turf in Hillsborough County.
"It seems right now that Johnnie is the frontrunner," said Steve Fuller, a Tampa mortgage broker who serves on the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee. "He has all the important backers in this area, but they have the backers in their area, too. The big question is how will Byrd appeal to the rest of the state."Byrd said he will be welcomed by Republicans in the rest of the state.
"Plant City reflects the values of America," Byrd said. "From Pensacola to Miami, there's people who don't believe that the Senate reflects their values, and that's why I'm running in this race."
Surrounded by his wife, Melane, and their four children, Byrd stressed the importance of families throughout the event.
"Families are everything," he said.
His 24-year-old daughter, Melane Ann, introduced him to the crowd. A 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a fighter pilot in training, his daughter is an example of America's fighting spirit, Byrd said.
"Aren't we proud of our men and women in the military?" Byrd said. "They're the reason this country is great."
Bryd mingled with the crowd during an afternoon rally. Supporters ate barbecued pork sandwiches and potato chips off paper plates, and sipped pink lemonade and iced tea.
Posing for photographs, Byrd waved behind a row of children holding poster boards that said Byrd supported families, education, troops and Homeland Security.
"Wow, the only thing they don't have for that picture is a dog," said Don Walden, a 75-year-old Plant City native.
Walden said he met Byrd a few years ago in the Kiwanis Club. He said he agrees with Byrd's attitudes about smaller government. He said Byrd has a good shot at winning because he already has contacts throughout the state who will support him.
"His position as speaker helps," Walden said. "It creates a network in itself. It's a big plus."
Many of those who said Byrd stood for smaller government and lower spending said they weren't bothered that he authorized spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money to mail out letters supporting parental notification for abortions and expanded the House Communications office by 13 employees to produce videos, posters and other visual aids.
"Sometimes you have to spend money to let people know what's good," said Phil McCullen, a 54-year-old retired truck driver from Plant City. "One person can't get the word out."
McCullen said he likes Byrd because he's a moral man.
"The man goes to church and he deals with you honestly," McCullen said. "What more can you ask for?"