Gloves off in the GOP debate

The two candidates for governor trade barbs over who is the true conservative and best to succeed Jeb Bush.

Published August 29, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH - So much for Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" that Republicans should never knock one another.

As Tropical Storm Ernesto bore down on Florida Monday night, the temperature spiked in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist, in a bruising televised debate, bashed each other as phonies hiding liberal leanings.

"Republican voters just can't trust Charlie Crist on issues that are important to them," Chief Financial Officer Gallagher said after nearly an hour pounding Crist for being evasive on abortion, supporting civil unions for gays, and intending to raise taxes to pay for class size reduction.

Attorney General Crist, the normally unflappable frontrunner, looked visibly annoyed and fired back at Gallagher with equal venom.

"Come on, Tom, you're no conservative and we know it," Crist scoffed at one point.

Crist attacked Gallagher for his "six long years as insurance commissioner," pointed to Gallagher's pending ethics complaints concerning stock trades and repeatedly invoked proposals for tax increases that Gallagher has backed over the years.

"Having flip-flopped on abortion, taxes, gun rights, school choice, how can the people of Florida trust your recent conversion," Crist asked. Gallagher, through much of his career, has been known as a moderate.

Gallagher brushed off the shot, noting that Crist had danced around a question about whether he would as governor sign a sweeping abortion ban in Florida if Roe vs. Wade were overturned.

"How can people trust someone who answers a question with a long speech when the question requires a yes or no answer?" Gallagher asked Crist. "If this is about trust, this is about you telling people where you stand with a yes or no answer."

Polls have shown Crist, 50, comfortably ahead of Gallagher, 62, among Republican voters, though one poll released last week suggested Gallagher was gaining ground. Monday's debate presented him with one of his best opportunities to make a strong impression among primary voters just starting to focus on their choices to succeed Gov. Jeb Bush, and Gallagher, looking more relaxed than he often does at such forums, came on strong.

"We're about to lose the conservative leadership that we've had in our party for a long time," said Gallagher, accusing Crist of turning his back on such red-meat conservative issues as banning abortion, clamping down on civil unions for gays, and opposing the expensive mandate to reduce class size.

Crist said Gallagher is trying to jump on "wedge issues" while voters are more concerned about such pocketbook issues as property taxes and homeowners insurance.

"It's important for people to understand who is the true conservative in the race, and that's Charlie Crist," the attorney general said. "I'm a Jeb Bush Republican."

The statement appeared to be a direct response to a new Tom Gallagher TV ad that features someone throwing Crist signs in a trash can, as a narrator intones: "Sorry Charlie. Only Jeb Bush conservatives get to be governor."

Gallagher pounced back. Jeb Bush wouldn't support an expensive class size mandate, or flip-flop on abortion, or support civil unions, he responded.

Although Crist said he opposed the class amendment when it was on the ballot, "it's time to move on" and accept the will of the voters and implement it.

Gallagher insisted that by not promising to fight to repeal the amendment, Crist was sending "sort of a secret message to people that you're going to raise their taxes."

Crist repeatedly sought to raise doubts about whether Gallagher can be trusted as governor: "His recent conversion - talking about being a conservative after a political lifetime of liberalism - just isn't believable,"

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