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Crist no conservative, says Gallagher camp

Dueling mailings reflect a striving by both Republican gubernatorial candidates to be heir to Jeb Bush's legacy.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published June 28, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Supporters of Tom Gallagher's bid for governor attacked Republican opponent Charlie Crist Tuesday as an opponent of restrictions on abortions and gambling, whose biggest fundraisers include "liberal trial lawyers."

The blast closely follows a statewide mailing by a 2-week-old group called the Conservative Values Coalition that praises Crist as a "prolife, profamily conservative."

That mailing, and its swift response, reflect a broader strategy by both campaigns to claim to be the rightful heir to Gov. Jeb Bush's legacy in a primary election in which social conservatives could be a powerful force.

"Charlie Crist is many things, but he is not a conservative," said a letter e-mailed by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a Gallagher supporter.

Baxley said Crist "has shown weakness, not strength" on abortion by casting a deciding vote as a state senator to prevent passage of a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Baxley noted Crist's continued opposition to abortion waiting periods and his statements that he supports the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision as the law of the land.

Baxley also wrote that Crist refused to join Bush in opposing a 2004 ballot initiative to legalize casino gambling, and has "never spoken out against activist judges." In fact, the lawmaker said, Crist "toasted the judges in the Terri Schiavo case" last year.

Crist referred to the two judges as heroes at a dinner in Miami in July 2005.

The Crist campaign chief of staff, George LeMieux, said Crist's conservative credentials are well established. LeMieux called Crist "antitax, prolaw enforcement, a defender of traditional marriage and pro-Second Amendment."

"He's known as a conservative," LeMieux said.

Crist calls himself prolife. At a Crist campaign phone bank in Fort Lauderdale this month, volunteers were handed a script that called Crist "a profamily conservative who will promote policies that create a culture of life."

He said the choice of words by the campaign's phone bank is not an attempt to disguise his philosophy on abortion.

"I suspect it's just semantics," Crist said recently. "I think it's important to respect life. I think it's also important to respect the views of others."

Baxley's "Dear Friends" message was also signed by John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer who has led the effort to pass a ban on same-sex marriage in Florida; pastor Pamela Olsen of Orlando and Barbara Collier, a grass roots activist in Fort Lauderdale.

The swiftness of the Gallagher camp's response reflects the growing influence in the governor's race of 527 committees, formed under Section 527 of the tax code, to influence voters under nebulous-sounding names such as the Conservative Values Coalition.

Baxley said in an interview that he sent his e-mail after receiving the flier at home. He called the piece disingenuous and said, "It just had that phony look to me."

Baxley was one of the leaders in the Florida Legislature in seeking passage of a bill that would have forced a judge to reconnect a feeding tube to Terri Schiavo last year. Baxley said Gallagher was an enthusiastic supporter of that, while Crist was "conspicuously absent."

"I'm not interested in hearing from folks who have studied the latest poll," Baxley said. "I'm interested in someone who shares my convictions, even if they have to stand alone."

The pro-Crist mailing was paid for by the Conservative Values Coalition, a 527 group formed June 8. The Internal Revenue Service Web site shows that the group's e-mail contact is a Tallahassee consulting firm, Political Communications, whose clients include the Florida Society of Ophthalmologists.

The president of Political Communications, Stephen Hull, is registered to lobby for one client, the ophthalmologists organization. A former president of that group, Alan Mendelsohn, a politically active South Florida ophthalmologist, is a Crist supporter.

Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified June 28, 2006, 01:53:45]


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