Gallagher and Crist can't both be right

Published July 8, 2006

If Tom Gallagher is going to win the Republican nomination for governor, some of his supporters think the campaign has to be about what matters most to socially conservative voters.

Abortion. Gambling. Gay marriage. Terri Schiavo.

Charlie Crist, on the other hand, is banking on what he calls the "80 percent rule."

"Ronald Reagan had a great line that I use on the stump a lot," Crist says. " 'If you agree with me 80 percent of the time, you're probably my friend.' "

Let's examine the other 20 percent from the Gallagher camp's point of view.

Social conservatives who support Gallagher, such as Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, say Crist is not a true conservative because of his stands on abortion, gay marriage, gambling and the Schiavo case.

"Charlie Crist is a conservative impostor," Stemberger writes in an article on the Human Events Online Web site.

Stemberger says the choice between Gallagher and Crist puts Florida at a moral crossroads in 2006, just as California was when Reagan left for the White House and liberals led that state into a culture of "abortion, drug use, divorce, crime and school dropouts."

For evidence, Stemberger points to a vote Crist made as a state senator when he sided with Democrats to defeat a bill requiring a 24-hour abortion waiting period.

Last year, Crist said he did not think a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was needed because a state law is already on the books.

He praised the judges in the Schiavo case as heroes last year, and Stemberger is still talking about the dinner in Miami at which a smiling Crist posed for a photograph with Janet Reno.

And Crist said he supported a repeal of the voter-approved ballot initiative that legalized Las Vegas-style slot machines in Broward County, but he also said the "will of the people" should be respected - a message antigambling conservative voters found fuzzy at best.

Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, is no shrinking violet. He's the activist who accused Republican Bill McCollum of catering to the "radical homosexual lobby" in the 2004 Senate race - words so inflammatory that Stemberger's candidate, Mel Martinez, was forced to publicly disavow them.

Stemberger says that about 40 percent of the base Republican primary vote in Florida is made up of social conservatives.

"Forty percent of the Republican base, give or take, will vote on issues of gambling, prolife and marriage," Stemberger says. "Those issues define what a conservative is to 40 percent of the Republican base."

Crist says most voters do not demand "100 percent alignment" with the candidates for governor. Rather, he has concluded, they make their decision based on a combination of a few issues and other factors, such as a candidate's character, integrity and personality.

Crist's strategy is obvious. He is keeping such a distance from Stemberger and social conservatives that he nearly skipped the group's big dinner in May.

Crist is looking well beyond the primary to the general election, when independents and swing voters could be decisive in choosing Florida's next governor.

The attorney general has decided to define conservatism in a way that sidesteps most moral issues. He says his opposition to new taxes and his support for stronger law enforcement and for gun ownership establish him as a bona fide conservative.

Will a majority of Republican primary voters agree with Gallagher supporters that he's the only real conservative?

Or is it possible that the Gallagher camp's focus on a handful of hot-button issues will scare undecided voters away from the polls, or send them Crist's way?

Not all Republican primary voters supported state intervention to reconnect Schiavo's feeding tube. Gallagher did; Crist didn't.

One Republican candidate for governor has found a winning strategy, and the other has made a horrible miscalculation.

We'll know which is which on Sept. 5.

Steve Bousquet is the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief. He can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.