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Urgency grips Gallagher campaign

Tom Gallagher's long-awaited first TV ads run today as he tries to make up ground on Charlie Crist.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published July 7, 2006


Back in February 2004, about 200 of Florida's top Republican fundraisers, lobbyists and political strategists converged on Key West to celebrate Tom Gallagher's 60th birthday. It seemed clear that Chief Financial Officer Gallagher would be the heavy favorite for governor in 2006.

What a difference a couple of years can make.

Gallagher's first television campaign ads are expected to air today - by many estimates not a moment too soon. With nine weeks before Florida Republicans anoint their preferred successor to Gov. Jeb Bush, Gallagher is on the verge of being left in the dust by Attorney General Charlie Crist.

Recent public polls show Gallagher more than 20 percentage points behind Crist, who has been running TV ads for a month, which raises the question of whether it's already too late.

"Obviously, it's a big uphill climb, but he's still got a lot of money to spend and they have been very carefully laying the groundwork on these grass roots efforts. That's what they've been saying," said lobbyist Curt Kiser, a longtime Gallagher ally. "But I haven't seen much happening. Ever since this thing started the polls have been favoring Charlie, and the distance between them keeps getting bigger and bigger."

Contrary to early predictions, Crist, 49, has consistently raised more money than Gallagher. On Thursday, he announced $1.79-million over the past three months, bringing his total raised to a record $11.7-million. Gallagher has not released his latest fundraising estimate but through March had raised nearly $6.7-million.

There's no evidence that early Gallagher supporters are jumping ship, but some are clamoring to see the campaign kick into gear. So far, much of Gallagher's publicity has been about ethics questions over stock trades he made while in office, a bitter divorce and his recent transformation from reliable moderate to arch-conservative.

"I've pushed it (the need to air TV ads), but I know the campaign has a rhythm to it, and they're going to stick to the plan that they've had from the beginning," said lobbyist and former state House Speaker John Thrasher, a Gallagher supporter who said he remains optimistic.

"People will have a chance to really examine the two candidates, not just on image but on policy. People are going to say, 'Who do I best trust to carry on the legacy of Jeb Bush from a policy standpoint?' " Thrasher said. "I think it's going to be close and it will get down to the wire."

Gallagher's first TV spot, airing in the Tampa Bay area and other markets, touts his public service record and casts him as a Bush conservative:

Tom Gallagher, trusted by conservatives for his tax cuts and pro-family stands. Trusted by Jeb Bush to implement his education reforms. Tom Gallagher, a conservative leader, a lifetime of experience.

In a state as politically unpredictable as Florida, it's dangerous to write off any candidate as well-funded and shrewd as Gallagher. But his window of opportunity is closing fast.

The primary is Sept. 5, but under Florida's early voting system people can start casting ballots on Aug. 21. So at a time when much of the public's attention is focused on vacations, North Korean missiles, immigration, Iraq and hurricanes, Gallagher has barely seven weeks to convince hardcore Republican primary voters he's their man.

"Anything that's done before now in my view is preseason," said Gallagher campaign manager Brett Doster, who predicted a sharply intensified campaign beginning now, as voters start focusing on the race. "Crist obviously has gotten a boost, which I would call empty calories, off of TV. ... You'll see the polls tighten enormously over four to five weeks."

Once TV ads help close the race, Doster contends the grass roots operation built over more than a year will make the difference. With fewer than 1.5-million Republicans - roughly 35 percent - expected to vote in the primary, a campaign's ability to precisely target the right voters can be more important than what polls show.

"Point spreads in a turnout election like that don't mean nearly as much as the mechanics of how you run your ground game," said Tom Slade, a Gallagher supporter and former state Republican chairman. "I'm not ready to give up on this race yet, if at all."

Gallagher volunteers expect to make 75,000 to 150,000 phone calls and door-knocks every week to mobilize likely Gallagher supporters. Political strategists say a strong voter mobilization operation can mean an advantage of several percentage points.

Unfortunately for Gallagher, there's little evidence he's even in a close race. A June 20-26 Quinnipiac University poll found Crist leading Gallagher among Republican voters 49 percent to 21 percent, with 28 percent undecided.

What's more, Gallagher faces the tricky calculus of how much of his resources he should spend boosting his image, and how much knocking down frontrunner Crist.

"If you were eight points away you might scorch the earth, but if you're 18 points away. ... Do you want to do that and just look like a spoiler?" asked Republican strategist and Crist supporter J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich.

Gallagher allies frequently invoke two names from recent Florida political history: Bill McBride and Mel Martinez. In June 2002, polls showed Democratic gubernatorial candidate McBride trailing Janet Reno by nearly 30 points, and he won the nomination. In the 2004 Republican U.S. Senate primary, late polls showed a neck-and-neck race between Martinez and Bill McCollum, but Martinez trounced McCollum by 14 percentage points.

McBride and Martinez had much of their party's establishment behind them and had more money to spend. As the final stretch approaches in this race, the Gallagher camp sounds undaunted by the climb ahead.

"This has been the game plan from the very beginning. We've known exactly when we would implement the plan and exactly what it will cost to implement that plan," said state Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Brandon. "As the plan gets under way we're going to see the results."

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