Trailing, Gallagher sticks to The Plan

A well-honed system to woo social conservatives hasn't dented Charlie Crist's appeal, polls show.

Published July 27, 2006

Almost from day-one of his campaign to succeed Gov. Jeb Bush, Tom Gallagher's highly touted campaign team talked of The Plan.

Veterans of the Bush-Cheney successful voter mobilization program, the pros advising the Republican chief financial officer talked up their laser-like precision for turning out socially conservative voters. Sure enough, with three weeks before early voting starts, the Gallagher team is faithfully and methodically sticking to the script it mapped out more than a year ago.

"Our plan has always been to build around something that would peak on election day, and we're still following that plan," Gallagher campaign spokesman Albert Martinez said.

Except it looks increasingly like Gallagher is riding that plan over a cliff. For all the talk about Gallagher's second-to-none advisers and consultants, the Republican governor's race has often felt like Charlie Crist faced no serious challenger.

On Wednesday Quinnipiac University released a poll showing Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist leading Gallagher 55 to 32 percent among likely Republican voters.

"Anything is possible," Quinnipiac Polling Institute's assistant director Peter Brown said when asked if Gallagher can win. "But obviously, given the size of the current lead, you need an unexpected event or some kind of mistake. It would be hard to imagine that without some seminal event a trend like this would be changed."

The Quinnipiac results actually provided what passed for good news for Gallagher, showing that Crist's lead among registered Republicans had dropped since a June poll. But another Mason-Dixon poll released this week showed Crist leading Gallagher by a stunning 31 points.

How did a race pitting two seasoned statewide campaigners get so lopsided?

A year ago, almost nobody involved in Florida politics would have foreseen savvy Tom Gallagher getting trounced by Crist at this point in the race. Indeed, Gallagher allies sniffed at Crist's skeletal campaign staff and predicted he'd never compete with the Bush-Cheney masterminds working for Gallagher.

"Gallagher's got a lot of high-paid talent advising him, and I don't know what he's gotten for that," said former Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala of Pinellas, a veteran strategist. "Charlie's got very few consultants and he's basically followed his guts."

Crist had inherent advantages all along. Where Gallagher has always been a stiff campaigner, Crist is one of the most personally engaging candidates Florida has seen in modern times.

While Attorney General Crist gets on TV railing against rate-raising utilities and price gougers, Chief Financial Officer Gallagher gets publicity as an architect of Florida's unpopular system for homeowners insurance.

Gallagher's strategy is simple: in a primary where barely 1 in 3 Republican voters are expected to turn out, he's targeting the hard core conservatives who will. From the Karl Rove playbook, he's campaigning especially hard for evangelical voters, opposing expanded stem cell research, supporting making abortion illegal, stressing his opposition to same sex marriage.

But a candidate like Gallagher - who has a lifelong reputation as a moderate who supported abortion rights, some big tax increases and gun control - is no sure winner for staunch conservatives.

Mark Proctor, a Gallagher supporter and Republican consultant in Hillsborough County, acknowledged Gallagher's success winning over social conservatives has not been universal.

"There are activists out there that have some doubt about his sincerity, whether he is really that way," said Proctor, who argues Gallagher can still pull off a win. "However, I've also heard activists says, 'Well when I got married and had children my life changed,' " which is how Gallagher explains his evolution.

Gallagher's campaign stances antagonized moderate Republicans but there's no evidence yet that he's persuading conservatives in big numbers to embrace him. Some longtime supporters quietly grumble that he should have campaigned less as an ardent social conservative and more as a thoroughly competent and substantive leader who knows how to run a complex state.

A detailed campaign plan with microtargeted polling and phone calls aimed at precise demographics is one thing. But flexibility is another, and the Gallagher campaign has often looked less than nimble.

Campaign staff were caught flat-footed and were at times slow to react effectively to negative publicity. Among other things, Gallagher faced revelations about having an affair during his prior marriage, and, as a Cabinet member, trading in stocks in companies affected by his votes.

"You do the best you can with the info you have at hand," said David Johnson, a senior adviser to the Gallagher campaign. "Would I like to have been better prepared? Yes."

Latvala doesn't write off Gallagher yet, but said he should have been more prepared for the negative publicity and scrutiny. "It's been a series of missteps ... He was down looking up and then all the revelations about the day trading and some of the perceived conflicts of interests came along, and he's been reeling ever since. Secondly, I don't think the new personality of Tom Gallagher is selling, where you basically try to change your stripes 80 percent through your life."

It may eventually be possible to pinpoint the day when Charlie Crist clinched the Republican nomination: May 26, 2005. That's the morning, in a Tampa International Airport conference room packed with supporters unsure of how strong a campaign Crist might run, Crist pulled in more than $1-million .

Impossible, supporters of rival Tom Gallagher scoffed at the time. But they were dead wrong about the attorney general, who has been known to cheerfully phone prospective donors at 6:30 a.m.

And debunking conventional wisdom that Gallagher was an unbeatable fundraiser, six weeks later Crist handily beat Gallagher's $3-million first fundraising report. Crist has raised more than Gallagher in every quarter since. Through June, Crist has raised $10.6-million, Gallagher $7.8-million.

"He is relentless. He doesn't sleep very much, he doesn't eat at all. He works 20 hours a day," marveled developer Brent Sembler, Crist's finance chairman.

Crist's fundraising advantage forced a tough decision for the Gallagher camp: When Crist started spending millions of dollars on TV ads, Gallagher held back to ensure he could be competitive in the final weeks.

Asked if the Crist lead is insurmountable, former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, a Gallagher supporter, said the "jury's still out on that."

Gallagher supporters say they're not out yet, and that polls mean little in a low turnout primary. His campaign says voters are just starting to look closely at such issues as Crist supporting expanded stem cell research and opposing proposals for a strict crackdown on illegal immigrants.

"My sense is if by Aug. 15 Tom has shown some significant movement in the polling numbers then he has a fighting chance," said Cardenas, who remains hopeful about The Plan.

"If Tom ends up eeking out a win we'll say it was brilliant and disciplined and visionary."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com