Gallagher ad attacks Crist as 'liberal'

The new TV spot apparently ends what had been a friendly primary between the Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Published August 16, 2006

Hoping to jump-start his lagging Republican gubernatorial campaign, Tom Gallagher on Tuesday launched a television ad campaign casting front-runner Charlie Crist as too liberal for Republicans.

The 30-second spot features ominous music and a somber narrator calling Crist "prochoice" and supportive of gay civil unions, amnesty for illegal aliens and "a liberal plan to increase state spending by billions."

Gallagher's seventh TV ad ends what had been a surprisingly friendly primary contest and could signal the start of some bruising final weeks before the Sept. 5 primary. The Crist campaign called the spot "an attack ad full of false and misleading statements" and accused Gallagher of reneging on a pledge to avoid negative attacks.

The Crist campaign, which has millions more to spend than Gallagher, pointedly declined to rule out launching a similar spot criticizing Gallagher.

"As Mr. Gallagher awaits trial on his ethics violations, his campaign is failing, his consultants are quitting and he is badly behind in the polls. These desperate times have unfortunately led Mr. Gallagher down the path of desperate measures much like it did in 1994 when he attacked Jeb Bush's business dealings and compared him to Fidel Castro," said Crist campaign staff chief George LeMieux.

The Florida Ethics Commission recently found probable cause that Gallagher broke state laws by trading in stocks of insurance companies he regulated. Some Crist backers see that issue as tailor-made for a negative ad on Gallagher.

While Crist staunchly shuns the "liberal" label, the new Gallagher spot is based on Crist's public statements and positions. What's more, steadfastly neutral Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday gave Gallagher some cover.

"If people have a difference of opinion it ought to be discussed and defended. And there ought to be a little pushing and pulling. It's okay," Bush said. Politics "doesn't have to be a tea party all the time."

Nevertheless, Crist allies pounced on Gallagher's new campaign tack.

"Mr. Gallagher should be ashamed of himself," said Republican state House Speaker Allan Bense, a Crist supporter.

Republican state Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, a Crist supporter, called Gallagher's ad shameful.

"Not only does he wrongly attack Attorney General Crist, but he seeks to mislead the public into believing he himself is a conservative. Tom Gallagher is no conservative," Fasano said. "He has been a protax, prochoice, progambling, anti-Second Amendment liberal his entire career. His recent attempt at an 'extreme makeover' into a conservative will not fool the voters."

The ad's allegation that Crist supported a liberal spending plan refers to the attorney general's opposition to efforts to repeal a constitutional amendment requiring lower class sizes.

In regard to illegal aliens, Crist has said he supports a U.S. Senate plan pushed by Sen. Mel Martinez that would allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens by learning English and paying some back taxes. Critics have characterized the proposal as amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Crist says he opposes same-sex marriages but in a radio interview recently said he considers same-sex civil unions fine. LeMieux said the ad misstates Crist's position, because the attorney general "didn't say he was advocating changing state law."

On abortion, Crist has said he would sign a bill banning abortion in Florida, but only if it included an exception for when a woman's life is in danger. He calls himself prolife but as a state legislator voted against a waiting period for abortions and in past campaigns called himself prochoice.

Then again, so did Gallagher: "I'm prochoice," he said while campaigning for governor in 1994. "The choice is one that individuals should make along with their doctor. It shouldn't be a government choice."

Gallagher, trailing badly in most polls, has lost much of his top consulting staff. The new ad was produced by Alfano-Leonardo Communications, which recently replaced Scott Howell & Co. Dan Allen of the Howell firm said it "stepped away" from the Gallagher campaign because of strategic differences between them.

News of Gallagher's hard-hitting ad came hours after state GOP chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan issued a press release noting how positive the Republican primary had been. "I urge Republican candidates to maintain this constructive environment," she said.

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