Talented old hand to give Gallagher effort a new push

A strategist who helped Jeb Bush win twice joins the struggling campaign for governor, saying "this race is far from over."

Published August 15, 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 is 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." Charlie Crist is Gallagher's primary opponent, currently far ahead in public opinion polls.

Murphy is a founding partner of Navigators, a Washington 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 campaign.

Monday, Gallagher's campaign switched media consultants, hiring Matthew Leonardo of Alfano-Leonardo of Washington. Campaign spokesman Alberto Martinez said Scott Howell & Co. 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 said no. His campaign said he 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 of Crist's campaign. "We think that's sufficient."

Crist and Gallagher will meet in two televised debates in the next two weeks.

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

Crist and Gallagher each is campaigning as the logical heir 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 (Attorney) 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.