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Political dance: the hurricane 2-step

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published June 13, 2006


Republican gubernatorial candidates Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist were set to face off for the first time on television tonight. Then Tropical Storm Alberto blew in to cancel the party.

"The treasurer's chief concern right now is to the safety of all Floridians, including campaign staff and volunteers,'' declared the release from Gallagher's campaign, where the headquarters was to remain open for "essential day-to-day operations only."

Meanwhile, Alberto forced Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis to cancel a property insurance-related campaign event in the Panhandle scheduled for today. Rival Democrat Rod Smith had to miss a Bill Clinton fundraiser in Orlando Monday, and Smith's campaign manager audibly groaned when asked about the e-mail supporters had sent inviting Tampa Bay residents to meet Smith in Ybor City next week: "Hurricane Rod returns to Tampa!"

Get ready for the trickiest dance of the political season - the hurricane two-step.

It's the tough new reality of campaigning in Florida, where too-busy hurricane seasons are becoming the norm. Campaign appearances and fundraising can come to a sudden halt and candidates tread a fine line to avoid being seen as exploiting a natural disaster.

We saw a glimpse of this in 2004, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was frozen out of Florida for weeks at the height of the presidential campaign. As the Kerry campaign went mute, President Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush dominated the TV airwaves doling out ice bags or reassuring Floridians from emergency command centers.

"I think this will weigh heavily on the election,'' said Paul Neaville, Smith's campaign manager. "People are looking at who do they want to see standing in the EOC emergency operations center. They want to have someone they can trust and who will be strong for them in the face of adversity."

Should Florida see more serious damage this summer, candidates face tricky choices about how and whether to campaign. As statewide officeholders, the Republican gubernatorial candidates have a much easier time looking appropriately apolitical while staying in the public eye.

The release from Chief Financial Officer Gallagher came out at 12:15 p.m. Monday: "Gallagher: Floridians Must Prepare for TS Alberto."

Six minutes later, the message from the Attorney General's Office arrived: "Crist Issues Consumer Alert as Tropical Storm Alberto Approaches Florida.''

What a difference statewide office makes.

Last year Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson went to South Florida to offer help and survey damage after Hurricane Wilma. Nobody thought twice about him being there as cameras recorded his visit.

Rep. Katherine Harris of Longboat Key, his main Republican rival, did the same thing. Her visit earned a note in Michael Putney's op-ed column in the Miami Herald: "Harris is from Sarasota, which was untouched by Wilma. So, why was she here except to get a little face time and advance her candidacy? In other words, Harris exploited our tragedy for her political gain. For someone from such a privileged background, this was low rent." Ouch.

This year, a lot of people expected Jeb Bush's profile to diminish as the spotlight moved to his would-be successors. But hurricanes may keep Bush front and center for much of the campaign/hurricane season.

As a result, the candidates vying to succeed him will have to measure up.

Given the state's experience with natural disasters in recent years, part of the new political equation for Florida candidates is convincing voters you have what it takes to lead during a crisis.

"That's when you most feel and see your governor - in a moment of crisis," said Orlando Republican consultant Bill Coletti. "You look at the four candidates and you say who can I see filling that role. You look at their background, their experience, and you look at who has the gravitas to do that.''

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

[Last modified June 13, 2006, 04:57:39]


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