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Ernesto doesn't cancel politics

With the primary just days away, candidates are walking a fine line between sensitivity to those bracing for possible havoc and keeping their message out there.

By JONI JAMES
Published August 29, 2006


Two months ago, when Hurricane Alberto threatened the southwest coast of Florida, the two men running for Florida's Republican gubernatorial nomination quickly agreed to cancel a joint appearance in Naples.

But as much of South Florida scrambled to buy gas and food Monday in advance of Tropical Storm Ernesto, Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher kept their date in the West Palm Beach studio of NBC affiliate WPTV for the second of two televised debates.

Voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties wouldn't get to see the event because NBC affiliate WJTV opted to focus on storm coverage, but the primary election is just one week from today.

Conventional wisdom in Florida has always been that hurricanes wreak havoc with political campaigns, especially for the candidate trailing in the polls who can't afford to lose any campaigning days.

But in a state where eight storms have come ashore in the past two years, and many more have threatened, that maxim may be changing, especially in highly contested races just days from a final vote.

Hurricanes still cause problems, but politicking adapts.

Consider, for example, the state's Elections Division. While Monroe and Broward counties suspended or made plans to suspend early voting, the state said it was working to ensure there were contingency plans so the primary could still be held statewide next Tuesday.

Host station WPTV hopes to reschedule for later this week a Democratic gubernatorial debate between Jim Davis and Rod Smith originally set to air live tonight, said producer Tom Kastanotis.

Statewide candidates for many offices canceled events for Tuesday or Wednesday, but were hesitant to do more for fear of being caught flatfooted if the storm changes track.

And all four gubernatorial candidates' campaigns said they were sticking to their television advertising plans despite Ernesto's threat. Gallagher even unveiled a new anti-Crist advertisement Monday morning - just minutes after releasing a campaign press release urging Floridians to take the storm seriously.

"When it comes to the actual campaign and who gets hurt and who doesn't get hurt (by the storm's arrival), that's a question for a couple days from now," said David Kochman, spokesman for Smith, a state senator from Alachua who has trailed Davis, a Tampa congressman, in the Democratic primary.

Gallagher, who has lagged behind Crist in the polls, canceled events in Broward County scheduled for today, the first day of a five-day bus tour. His staff said he spent Monday on official duties, as the state's chief financial officer, which oversees insurance agent regulation and the state fire marshal's office.

But the politicking didn't stop. Just three hours before the debate was set to begin, Gallagher's campaign hosted a conference call featuring conservative state legislators who praised Gallagher and criticized Crist.

Crist, the state's attorney general, was in Miami Monday where he had a private briefing with Max Mayfield, outgoing director of the National Hurricane Center. Crist said he is de-emphasizing political activity but not stopping it.

"We will continue to advertise," Crist said. "We've still got an election next Tuesday."

Davis' campaign said a Wednesday appearance with former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham was uncertain and that the rest of the week would depend on where the storm hits and how severely.

U.S. Senate candidate Peter Monroe, a long shot for the Republican nomination, was in Miami for campaign events on Monday and decided to stay through the storm. "I'm hanging out in Miami," he said. "I'm going to make myself useful."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Anita Kumar, Alex Leary and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.