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Gallagher, Crist race takes a testy turn

Mostly cordial until now, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidates finally spar a bit, trading accusations in TV ads as the Sept. 5 primary draws near.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published August 16, 2006


TALLAHASSEE -— The TV ads are getting more harsh by the day in the Republican primary for governor, though both candidates insist they’re playing fair.

Tom Gallagher released an ad Tuesday claiming Charlie Crist supports a “liberal plan to raise state spending by billions.” The ad also suggests Crist would offer amnesty for illegal immigrants, permit civil unions for gays and is “pro-choice” on abortion.

In response, Crist launched an ad Wednesday accusing Gallagher of “false, misleading attacks.” The ad does not respond directly to the charges, but does refer to a 12-year-old Gallagher political commercial in which he faulted Gov. Jeb Bush’s trade policies by comparing Bush to Fidel Castro.

Gallagher’s latest advertisement was the first of the campaign in which a candidate took direct aim at his opponent’s positions, and the exchange of commercials could send the race down a slippery slope that ends the clean campaign pledge both men signed in May.

That pledge prohibits personal attacks, but allows comparisons on “issues of substance.” Gallagher’s side said their ad was well within bounds, a criticism of Crist based on issues -— not an attack. Crist, however, said that the Gallagher ad distorts his positions and that Crist is following a strategy as old as politics itself —  criticism should never go unanswered.

“To turn the other cheek in these circumstances is to get your head ripped off,” said J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a Crist supporter.


Stipanovich, who said he played no role in Crist’s TV strategy, said Crist has millions more dollars on hand than does Gallagher to spend on TV ads in the home stretch.


“Tom will rue the day that he ever started this,” Stipanovich said.
Former Attorney General Jim Smith, a Gallagher supporter and veteran of tough statewide campaigns, said he worries that if the tone of the campaign deteriorates, it could hurt the GOP’s chances in November.

“I would implore both campaigns to keep it on a high plane,” Smith said. “If we want to run a competitive race in November, we have to be real careful about what we do in September.”

Gov. Bush did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment on the shift in tone of the race. But he said Tuesday that “a little pushing and pulling” is okay as candidates highlight their opponents’ policy differences.

Smith said that Bush is concerned about the tone and that he would use his office “to bring things back to a reasonable level” if needed.

“I know the governor feels strongly that way,” Smith said.

Crist’s campaign said Gallagher’s ad was not true —  that even though Crist opposes a 24-hour abortion waiting period, he is not “pro-choice” as Gallagher’s ad says. Although Crist supports the class size amendment and its multibillion dollar price tag, he has not advocated higher spending to pay for it.

Crist has not said how he would pay for the amendment. He has said that the will of the voters should be honored and that Florida’s growing economy generates more money every year.

Crist’s top campaign adviser, George LeMieux, said the reference to Gallagher’s 12-year-old TV ad against Bush was fair game.

“It shows a pattern,” LeMieux said. “The attack was deceptive.”

Gallagher spokesman Albert Martinez called Crist’s latest ad, his seventh, “par for the course for a politician who refuses to discuss the important issues.”

Both Crist and Gallagher are repeatedly using Bush to score political gains against each other.

To bolster its claim that Crist has a record of negative campaigning, Gallagher’s camp dusted off part of a transcript of an interview between Bush and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2000.

Bush said it was “the wrong approach” for Crist to have revived an opponent’s 16-year-old drunken driving arrest in the 2000 race for education commissioner.

The growing testiness over the airwaves comes with the Sept. 5 primary just three weeks away, and as both Republicans prepare for the first of two live, statewide TV debates in the next 10 days.

The first debate, on PBS stations, is at 8 p.m. Tuesday from the studios of WEDU in Tampa.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263