tampabay.com

Gubernatorial candidates wear their positions on their sleeves

 The four running in the primary pretty much toe their party lines on public issues. But sticky personal issues also surface again.

By ALEX LEARY
Published June 24, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The differences in the two parties battling for governor can be neatly summed up in what the candidates wore Friday during a forum at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher sat before a packed crowd in gleaming white shirtsleeves; Democrats Rod Smith and Jim Davis kept their suit jackets on.

Viewed another way, the Republicans are mostly comfortable with how things are going. The Democrats paint a bleak picture and offer themselves as the hard-working cure.

"This really is about two different visions for this state," Smith said, accusing Republicans of favoring billions in tax cuts over education and health care.

Gallagher agreed there are choices, one being "whether or not we continue in the manner in which we've been moving in this state. ... I believe Jeb Bush has done an excellent job." The economy is strong and unemployment is low, he said.

The distinctions surfaced throughout the hour-plus question-and-answer session, hosted by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and Florida Press Association. Candidates took on education and privatization, immigration and global warming, everything, it seemed, but property insurance.

Most provocatively, they addressed family values. Earlier this week, Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, was forced to acknowledge he cheated on his first wife nearly 30 years ago and used marijuana.

"Thanks very much for that question," Gallagher said, drawing laughter. He turned serious. "I believe I've learned more from the mistakes I've made than from the things that I've done and been successful."

Crist, whose brief marriage in 1979 ended in divorce, noted he is the only candidate without children. "But Strom Thurmond gives me hope. I'm only 49. In all seriousness, my upbringing has had a profound impact on my life. I understand the importance of families."

Smith, too, has had a divorce and previously had issues with child support. His current marriage dates more than 20 years. Smith dismissed the questions as a fixation of the news media. "If divorce was the reason we don't have great leaders, Ronald Reagan wouldn't have been the president he was," the state senator from Alachua said, adding he too learned from mistakes.

Davis, a congressman from Tampa, has never been divorced and is approaching his 20th wedding anniversary. "If I'm the governor," he said, "the first thing I've got to do in the morning is get my kids ready for school."

The Democrats were asked to assess Gov. Bush's legacy and praised his leadership during recent hurricanes. But Smith said education would prove a low point of the two Bush terms, and Davis said the administration has closed itself off to anyone without a lobbyist. He also took aim at the move toward privatization, blaming not just the governor but the Legislature, too.

Davis, who likes to talk about the "people in Tallahassee" also seemed to lump his primary opponent into criticism the state is not doing enough to address infrastructure needs. "There has been a massive failure to keep up with growth," he said. Smith said the governor deserves blame for vetoing local projects to combat the effects of growth.

When Davis criticized state government for last year's Terri Schiavo end-of-life debate, Smith shot back that he put together a coalition to "stand up to the governor," who supported efforts to keep her alive.

Of the four candidates, Gallagher struck the most rigid partisan posture. When asked about the national debate over immigration, he forcefully declared illegally entering of the country must be stopped "at whatever cost." The others were more measured in their response. Gallagher also displayed skepticism about global warming, but agreed alternative energy sources should be pursued.

If Crist was not invoking Jeb Bush - "the best governor in America," and "my friend" - he was mentioning his role as state attorney general. Crist said he has fought to make Floridians safer and would continue to do so. He too noted the race's philosophical undercurrent.

"Florida," he said, "is at a crossroads."