Defining priorities, and identities

Gallagher lines up visits with conservative Republicans; Crist solicits a doctors lobby.

Published September 2, 2006

ORLANDO - In this city that markets dreams, Tom Gallagher brought his here Friday in a final effort to inspire conservative Republican voters to help him upset Charlie Crist in Tuesday's gubernatorial primary.

The day in Republican-rich Central Florida netted an unexpected coup: the coveted endorsement of one of the state's most respected Republicans, conservative state Sen. and former House Speaker Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, a 26-year veteran of the Florida Legislature.

And it ended with an impromptu stop at a high school football game in Marion County's Belleview, where more than 3,000 filled the stands for an intercounty rivalry.

But Gallagher is fast losing time to turn around the race, his fourth bid to lead the government of his adopted home state.

A poll released Friday by the Florida Chamber of Commerce showed Crist, the state's attorney general, besting Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, by 12 points, with a margin of error of 6 points.

But the 62-year-old Gallagher is refusing to concede anything, saying polls don't reflect his grass roots support. "If I'd paid attention to polls, I'd never gotten into this," said Gallagher. "There's one poll that counts, and that's the last one. We have a lot of support. We have a lot of people working every day."

While Gallagher hopscotched across the region in a bus, Crist built a day of sign waving in Brandon, Bartow and Fort Myers around a lunchtime address to 400 members of the Florida Medical Association at Gaylord Palms Resort near Walt Disney World.

Crist sounded confident, thanking the influential doctors lobby for endorsing him. He was introduced as "the son of a doctor" and as "the next governor of Florida."

"I don't just want your vote. I want your heart. I need your passion," Crist said. "We are on the 5-yard line, and we've got to score. We've got to punch it over."

In Bartow, Crist visited a phone bank of nearly 20 supporters, some of whom spoke Spanish, who were calling Polk County voters and urging them to vote before Tuesday.

"I won't let you down," he told Bob Dufresne. Later he told his wife, Linda Dufresne: "I'm not proabortion. It's just unbelievable what they will say."

A prepared phone bank script called Crist a "tough-on-crime, prolife conservative who has never supported a tax increase."

Gallagher has repeatedly questioned Crist's record on abortion and taxes, noting that Crist has said he opposes a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can get an abortion and that Crist supports a constitutional amendment to reduce class size. Gallagher, like Gov. Jeb Bush, has said the requirement will lead to tax increases. Crist has said it's time to implement the voters' will.

The highlight of the day for Gallagher was Webster's endorsement, delivered from a podium inside a Baptist-sponsored pregnancy crisis center in Orlando. Webster said he'd become convinced Gallagher was no longer the moderate Republican who had served with him in the House in the early 1980s but is now "the best conservative voice in the race ... the Ronald Reagan conservative in the race."

Gallagher's hope for a win, most political watchers believe, is for a disproportional turnout among the state's conservative Republicans. And Friday's agenda reflected that.

Before the football game, Gallagher capped his day with a 100-person gathering honoring veterans in Ocala's picturesque town square, its gazebo festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting.

His message there - antiabortion, anti-gay marriage and antitax - was near identical to others throughout a day that had included a visit to a senior citizen center's breakfast, a tour of the pregnancy crisis center - where Gallagher handled full-sized models of a 12-week-old fetus - and an intimate rally of 50 supporters at the headquarters for a citizen petition to ban gay marriage, pushed by Florida4Marriage.org.

At the latter stop, Gallagher noted how on Election Day 2004, Democratic Sen. John Kerry thought he'd won the state halfway through the day only to be bested by incumbent President George W. Bush by 390,000 votes.