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Florida Republicans see trouble brewing

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published March 19, 2006


Amid the president's plummeting approval ratings, grim headlines about Iraq, and the Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals, some Republican strategists in Florida have found solace heading into the biggest election cycle in more than 10 years.

Gov. Jeb Bush's popularity insulates the state from the president's problems, they assure themselves. The Florida Legislature's recently passed gift ban and lobbyist disclosure law helps diminish the stench of Republican scandal wafting out of Washington. Florida's economy is stronger than other states, they note, and Florida Democrats are hapless and darn near destitute.

Time to take off the rose-tinted glasses.

Crazy as it sounds in a state so thoroughly dominated by the GOP, there are signs of big trouble brewing for the party of no-longer-in-control-Jeb. And it goes much deeper than than Republican Senate candidate Katherine Harris' latest discomforting performance on Hannity & Colmes.

"There's been a phenomenal reversal of fortune down there," said Matt Towery, who runs an Atlanta-based polling and online media firm. Having completed a March 6-9 poll of 1,000 registered voters in Florida, the former Republican lawmaker and Newt Gingrich aide sees a seismic shift in Florida politics.

"These numbers are like a tsunami. There has been a literal sea change, a potential realignment toward the Democrats in Florida," Towery said. "I think the state's gone from being pretty safe Republican to being pretty safe Democrat. And it's because the independents who kept (both Bushes) in office have shifted something like 70 percent to the Democrats."

This is just a snapshot in time, of course, and the election - including governor, U.S. Senate, state attorney general, chief financial officer and a smattering of competitive congressional and legislative races - is still eight months away. Republicans have an enormous financial advantage and a get-out-the-vote effort that's proven its superiority in the last two Florida elections.

Republican strategist Geoffrey Becker is worried but much less pessimistic than Towery. As the old saying goes, you can't beat somebody with nobody, and Florida Democrats have yet to prove they have somebody.

"Republicans have every right to be concerned, but I don't see it in the sense of a Democratic frenzy of turnout. I see it in less than ecstatic Republican enthusiasm. Republicans right now, despite the economy doing well and us doing a lot of good things and having a lot to talk about in Florida, don't seem to have the same intensity that we normally should at this point in time in the cycle," Becker said.

The president has been slightly better off in Florida than he is nationally. Towery's InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research poll found a meager 42 percent of Florida voters approved of his performance in the poll, compared to 37 percent nationally in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

So it's way too early to project big Republican losses, especially given the state's gerrymandered congressional and legislative districts and the Democrats' track record in recent Florida elections.

Still, it sure seems lately like the Republicans are holding the door open for Democratic advancements.

There's a reason savvy Republicans in Florida remain wary about the statewide races like governor, attorney general and chief financial officer this year and downright worried about some congressional races, like Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw's in southeast Florida.

Back in December a lot of politicos felt Florida Republicans had inoculated themselves from the special interest and ethics taint emanating from Abramoff, Tom DeLay and Scooter Libby in Washington. Gov. Bush at the time said he doubted Florida would feel the backlash against Washington Republicans.

"It would have, had the Republican Party in Florida not responded, had the leadership of the Legislature just ignored this feeling that I sense that people are frustrated by the corrupting influence of special interests," the governor said then, refering to the gift ban.

Sounds logical. But what have been Florida's biggest political headlines since?

- Republican Senate candidate Katherine Harris - presumably the name at the top of the ballot in November - received tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from a defense contractor who bribed California Rep. Duke Cunningham.

- Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher, after revelations of his day-trading as chief financial officer, queries the Florida Ethics Commission whether he should have speculated thousands of dollars on companies he was regulating as insurance commissioner.

- Incoming Senate President Ken Pruitt is under fire for his longstanding ties to a controversial Palm Beach County political consultant. Among the allegations is that Pruitt helped write school construction laws that would benefit the consultant's portable classroom company.

Florida Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman lately has been trying to turn Pruitt into Florida's own Tom DeLay.

"The Republican Party is the party of ideas," said Pruitt, brushing off the criticism of himself. "And just like you've seen here for the past seven years, you're going see more ideas coming out of the Florida Legislature, and that's why why we win."

Party leaders downplay the backlash on Florida Republicans.

"We've gotten some headlines, but we passed a really good ethics reform bill back in December, and I think that we have set the bar for other states to follow," said state House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "A lot of those issues that you're talking about occurred prior to the December bill being passed."

That doesn't mean those issues won't be part of the campaign dialogue in the next few months, however. The new disclosure law could in fact wind up highlighting the extraordinary amount of money some lobbyists make in Tallahassee.

Pollster Towery thinks the mess in Washington could shape Florida governor's race in big ways. He sees the Democratic primary between U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua as wide open - and the most overlooked contest of the year because Democrats have a real shot at winning back the Governor's Mansion.

"That giant sucking sound you hear coming out of the Washington and Congress I think is going to flow right down into these governors races," Towery said.

Most Floridians haven't heard of Davis or Smith. Come November, though, the anti-Republican landscape could make their lack of familiarity moot.

If there's anything to reassure Florida Republicans, it's history: Democrats have a knack for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 17, 2006, 19:33:02]


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