Gallagher looks to keep on going

Republican candidate for governor Tom Gallagher all but assures he won't drop out of the race despite heavily trailing Charlie Crist.

Published August 9, 2006

THE VILLAGES - Polls show him way behind in the Republican gubernatorial primary, he’s lagging in campaign money, and Republican insiders are increasingly writing off his candidacy. Is it time for Tom Gallagher to pull the plug?

“If the reality is you can’t win, why force a lot of money to be spent in the primary? I hope he will be realistic,’’ said former attorney general and secretary of state Jim Smith, a Gallagher supporter and close friend.

In 1994 Smith dropped out of a run-off race for governor after concluding he could not beat Jeb Bush. He said Gallagher would serve his party well by letting his opponent Charlie Crist conserve his money for the general election.

“At the end of the day I think this needs to be about the Republican party winning, and I think we’re going to have a pretty competitive general election.”

Campaigning Wednesday through north-central Florida, Gallagher acknowledged he’s been talking lately to supporters about his campaign’s future. But he insisted he intends to continue campaigning to the  Sept. 5 primary.

“We always watch polls; that’s what campaigns do,’’ Gallagher said. “I can tell you we’re moving in the right direction. The question is whether we’re moving in the right direction fast enough. ''

For some business interests, every day they stand by Gallagher is another day where they are not earning favor with Crist, now widely favored to succeed Jeb Bush in the governor’s mansion.

Plenty of Gallagher allies want him to plow ahead and aggressively challenge Crist for the nomination, but it’s a sign of his campaign’s precarious state that he’s fending off rumors of an imminent withdrawal.

 “He’s not getting out of this race. Absolutely not,’’ said state Rep. David Rivera, a Gallagher supporter from Miami.

“What you’re seeing are fair weather friends attempting to hedge their bets at best, and at worst trying to ingratiate themselves with Tom’s opponent.’’

Chief Financial Officer Gallagher is 62. Many think this is his last statewide campaign and question what he gains from seeing it through until the end. In 2000, he bowed out of a Republican U.S. Senate primary in the name of party unity, and Republicans wound up losing the seat to Bill Nelson.

“A lot of people are getting nervous, they’re wanting to hedge their bets, but Tom Gallagher has earned the right to run for governor and I remain 100 percent behind him,’’ said lobbyist and former state House Speaker John Thrasher of Jacksonville.

Al Cardenas, a lobbyist and former state GOP chairman, noted that as the party has benefitted from a spirited primary, with Republicans increasing their lead over Democrats in recent polls. Cardenas said Gallagher lately has had to ask himself whether he feels passionately he’s the best person to tackle key issues,  and whether he can win.

“I think Tom’s had a gut check and answered both those questions in the affirmative, and he’s decided to stay on,’’ Cardenas said.

Most recent polls have shown Gallagher about 20 percentage points behind Attorney General Crist, and as of late July he had about $3.64-million on hand, compared to $7.81-million for Crist.

By bowing out of the race, Gallagher could save Crist millions of dollars in primary campaign spending. Some Crist strategists, however, look forward to the momentum that comes from winning a primary.

Gallagher would be limited in how much he could help Republicans with his unspent money.

Under state law, he could only give $10,000 to the state GOP, though he could reimburse the party for nearly $890,000 in campaign expenses it covered. He also could give unspent money to charity, refund it to contributors or throw it into the state budget.

Some Gallagher supporters say polls in a low turnout primary like this are dubious, because they don’t properly measure those likely to show up. Gallagher has been campaigning particularly hard for support from social conservatives.

“I think this is a late-breaking race, and I think there’s still time for values voters to tune in. If anyone thinks they can call this race, they don’t know Florida,’’ said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, downplaying the chance that Gallagher might withdraw. “He’s assured me he’s solid to the end.’’

The Gallagher campaign announced a “campaign announcement’’ scheduled for today, but declined to offer any detail. But Gallagher, after completing half a dozen campaign events in Lake and Sumter counties, offered a hint of what it wouldn’t be.

“If I was getting out tomorrow, do you think I’d spend all this time (campaigning) today?’’

Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.