GOP's rivals for governor face off

Crist's job in tonight's debate: Maintain his polls lead. Gallagher's: Score policy points to overcome his opponent's charm.

Published August 22, 2006

The shallow, empty suit vs. the policy whiz.

That's pretty much what many observers expected back in 1998 when a state senator named Charlie Crist faced Bob Graham in a U.S. Senate debate televised across the state. No, Crist didn't take down Graham, but his unexpectedly strong performance taught politicos to never underestimate the St. Petersburg charmer in a televised appearance.

Attorney General Crist is still often derided as a policy lightweight, even as he has emerged as the heavyweight in this year's Republican gubernatorial primary. Tonight he faces another policy ace, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, in the first gubernatorial debate televised across the state.

Crist and Gallagher will face off at the WEDU studio in Tampa beginning at 8 p.m. on Public Broadcasting Service. Moderated by Rob Lorei, the debate will have a panel of questioners consisting of St. Petersburg Times deputy Tallahassee bureau chief Joni James, Joe Brown of the Tampa Tribune, and Pat Yack of the Florida Times-Union.

The debate is organized by Leadership Florida, the Florida Press Association and the Florida Public Broadcasting Service. A similar debate between Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jim Davis and Rod Smith will air live Wednesday at 8 p.m.

Leading in recent polls by about 20 points, Crist has much more to lose tonight than Gallagher as they head toward the Sept. 5 primary. The challenge for the chief financial officer is to sharpen the differences between him and Crist without appearing nasty.

For those keeping score at home, we offer a viewer's guide. Here's what to look for in the performance of each GOP candidate tonight:

SUBSTANCE: Can Crist move beyond bumper sticker answers and show some depth on policy issues? Will he make any factual error that might help Gallagher sway voters uneasy about Crist? A former state education commissioner, Crist recently admitted to the Palm Beach Post editorial board that he did not know when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is given.

Gallagher wants voters to see in Crist a waffler who won't take firm positions and lacks a clear agenda to succeed Gov. Jeb Bush. Look for Gallagher to try pushing Crist into explaining how he intends to pay for a class size reduction mandate that many Republicans want to repeal because they say it's prohibitively expensive.

"I think the viewers can see that Tom is someone who, as he has throughout the campaign, stands on conviction," said Gallagher campaign spokesman Albert Martinez. "He's someone who has a clear vision for the state."

CHARM: Based on past performances, it's a good bet that if you turn the sound off, you will see Crist perfectly at ease and Gallagher looking like he'd rather be somewhere else.

The chief financial officer knows the intricacy of policy as well as anyone, but on the stump he can come off as uncomfortable and sometimes testy. He can also get bogged down in minutia, casually throwing out bureaucratic acronyms foreign to even well-versed voters.

"There's an old adage in politics that goes, 'Before you tell me how much you know, tell me how much you care.' I think that's what Charlie leads with, and I think Tom leads with how much he knows," said former state Sen. Curt Kiser, a longtime friend of Gallagher.

Stu Stevens, a consultant working with Crist, offers his own advice for viewers: "Just see who you like. If one of these guys becomes governor, you're going to spend a lot of time with them."

RED MEAT: Gallagher, known for most of his career as a pro-choice moderate Republican, is campaigning this time as an ardent social conservative. In a low-turnout primary, his allies are banking on energized Christian conservatives making the difference for him.

There is no evidence yet that the approach is working, but Crist has handed Gallagher some opportunities. Calling into a liberal radio show recently, Crist said he had not made up his mind on whether Florida should allow gay couples to adopt children and said he did not object to civil unions for gay couples.

Gallagher is jumping on those issues, and is likely to highlight them tonight.

Also, Gallagher allies frequently note that Crist is unmarried, has never had children or owned a home. For fun, count how many times tonight Gallagher mentions his own family.

"I think people will come away having seen two very different candidates and two very different Republicans," said Martinez.

The format allows the candidates to also ask each other questions, and the trick for both is to try to score points without coming off as too negative.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.