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Gallagher gets free help

Political strategist Mike Murphy, who has helped Jeb Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger become governors, said Monday he is helping Tom Gallagher on a volunteer basis.

By JONI JAMES
Published August 14, 2006


TALLAHASSEE -- The man who helped Jeb Bush twice win election as Florida’s governor has committed to helping Republican Tom Gallagher’s struggling bid for the same job.

Political strategist Mike Murphy, whose recent victories include helping Arnold Schwarzenegger become California’s governor, confirmed Monday that he was helping Gallagher on a volunteer basis for the final three weeks before the Sept. 5 Republican gubernatorial primary.

“I think this race is far from over and I think Tom has a real chance to win,” Murphy wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. “Charlie is a good guy, but Tom is the stronger conservative on core GOP issues.”

Murphy is a founding partner of Navigators, a Washington, D.C. lobbying and public relations firm, that recently opened a Tallahassee office. One of his partners, and Bush’s campaign spokesman in 2002, Todd Harris, is backing Crist.

Murphy’s entry into the campaign comes less than a week after Gallagher batted down speculation he would abandon his fourth bid to become Florida’s governor and pledged to rejuvenate his flailing campaign.

Monday, Gallagher’s campaign switched media consultants, hiring Matthew Leonardo of Alfano-Leonardo of Washington, D.C. Campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez confirmed Scott Howell & Company of Texas had left the campaign on amicable terms, but declined to elaborate.

Howell couldn’t be reached for comment.

Also Monday, Gallagher challenged Crist to at least two more debates, one tonight  in Orlando and another Wednesday in West Palm Beach. Crist immediately said no. His campaign said Crist already has events scheduled and that the two Republicans have had a lot of face-to-face meetings.

“Charlie Crist has appeared with the treasurer at at least a dozen forums,” said George LeMieux, chief of staff to Crist’s campaign. “We think that’s sufficient.”

Crist and Gallagher will meet in two face-to-face live TV debates in the next two weeks.

Gallagher has consistently scored poorly in public opinion polls. Just last week, a St. Petersburg Times poll found that 50 percent of voters now favor Crist; 26 percent Gallagher and 24 percent undecided.

Crist and Gallagher both are campaigning as the logical heirs to continue Bush’s agenda, and the governor flew into Orlando and Oldsmar Monday to talk up Republican accomplishments.

Bush, who is neutral in the primary, was diplomatic Monday when asked if Crist had all but locked up the nomination.

“He’s definitely ahead in the polls, but Tom is running an honorable race and wants to finish strong and you never know what will happen in a low-turnout primary,’’ the governor said. “I know General Crist is … sincerely working as if he’s 20-points down. I like the fact that both our candidates are battle-tested.”

Times staff writers Adam C. Smith and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.