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It'll be a bay area governor

By Steve Bousquet, Joni James, Alex Leary and Jennifer Liberto
Published September 6, 2006

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It's a Tampa Bay twosome: Jim Davis of Tampa has won the Democratic nomination for governor. And Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg routed Tom Gallagher in the GOP race.

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Republican Charlie Crist cruised to an overwhelming victory and Democrat Jim Davis claimed a much narrower win in Tuesday’s low-turnout primary election for governor, setting the stage for an all-Tampa Bay showdown to succeed Jeb Bush.

In the Republican race, Crist crushed Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher by a 2-1 ratio. Crist’s resounding win exceeded even the most lopsided polls and gives the attorney general a surge of momentum as the general election begins.

The mood was euphoric at Crist’s victory party in the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg. In a victory speech, Crist, 50, called for higher teacher salaries, tougher penalties for sex offenders and more adoptions.
He rallied Republicans to help him in a tough general election campaign.

“It is the voters who decide if these plans become a reality,” Crist said. “Our resolve must not waver.”

The Democratic race was much closer, but state Sen. Rod Smith conceded at about 11:30 p.m.
All-day rains in South Florida may have played a critical role in that race, depressing turnout in a region that Smith had counted on heavily.

The race had been especially bitter. Congressman Davis, 48, saw his once strong lead in the polls evaporate as he came under constant attack by an array of groups funded by the U.S. Sugar Corp. that dumped $4-million into the campaign to help Smith.

In his speech, Davis couldn’t resist a little needling.

“With all the talk of sugar in the news,” he said, “let me say, 'How sweet it is.’ ”

He said Floridians are being squeezed by rising property taxes and insurance rates, and he declared Crist, a sitting member of the Cabinet, the status quo candidate who needs to be swept aside.

“It’s time to change direction, and tonight’s a new direction,” he said. “We have nine weeks to make the case that we can have smaller class sizes and well-paid teachers. We can and we will end the use of the FCAT as a political weapon against our schools, our teachers and our children.”

Davis vaulted to a substantial lead thanks to a surge of votes in his political base in Tampa Bay, where the weather was sunny all day. The race tightened, but Smith never led.

Smith, a 56-year-old lawyer from Alachua who was virtually unknown in the rest of the state, had set up shop in Broward County early in the campaign. As the low-key Davis plodded along, preferring small groups to big rallies, Smith steadily gained ground, cutting into Davis’ once-overwhelming lead in the polls and winning editorial support as the more electable choice in November.

When Smith ran out of money, the sugar industry came to his rescue with hard-hitting ads and mailers attacking Davis for skipping votes in Congress and for voting to deny compensation to two black men wrongly convicted of murder. It made a Smith upset seem possible.But Broward, the state’s biggest Democratic county, came in for some of the heaviest rains on Election Day and Smith’s campaign manager felt their chances slipping away early in the day.

“All bets are off,” Paul Neaville wrote in an urgent e-mail to supporters. “We face a huge risk of people staying home. And we need every single vote.”

Too few of those votes materialized Tuesday.

And in the end, too, Smith may have overplayed his sugar-coated hand. By relying almost completely on sugar industry support, he risked alienating liberal Democrats who see Big Sugar as a polluter of the Everglades.

“Today, we get to send a message to U.S. Sugar Corp. that Florida belongs to the people,” Davis said on the radio Tuesday. He campaigned on Election Day in retirement condos with former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham and two members of Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Robert Wexler.

In the Republican primary, events drew to a close much earlier. Gallagher conceded shortly after 10 p.m. at a hotel in Coconut Grove, calling for unity to make sure a Republican remains in the governor’s mansion for four more years.

“All of us need to move past our disappointment and we need to do everything we can to help Charlie win this race,” Gallagher said.

The victory by Crist, the attorney general from St. Petersburg, over Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, had an air of inevitability for weeks. Crist’s overwhelming advantages long ago sapped the contest of much of its suspense.

Crist held double-digit leads in every poll in the past year and he overwhelmed Gallagher in every facet of the race.
In the crucial get-out-the-vote effort, Crist supporters by the dozen staffed phone banks for the past two weeks, repeatedly cajoling loyal Republicans to cast ballots in places such as Bartow and Orlando.

Crist raised $14-million, shattering all records for a Florida primary for governor — including $1-million collected at a single luncheon at a Tampa hotel last year.

The money paid for a vital Crist strategic advantage. He launched statewide TV ads over Memorial Day weekend, a full six weeks before Gallagher. By having the airwaves all to himself, Crist enhanced his name recognition, which in turn made it easier for him to raise more money.

While he blanketed the state with TV ads, Crist collected support from such powerful interest groups as the Police Benevolent Association, National Rifle Association and Florida Medical Association, and from political stars like Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In two contentious TV debates, Gallagher portrayed Crist as a liberal on issues like abortion and immigration. But in the studio, Crist managed to deflect Gallagher’s punches.

On the trail, Crist’s sunny optimism and casual way of connecting one-on-one with voters make him the state’s best retail politician. He campaigned tirelessly, eating little and sipping caffeinated Red Bull energy drinks.

Crist is the first nominee for governor from St. Petersburg since Charles Holley, who lost to Haydon Burns in 1964.
For Gallagher, the defeat was his most painful, a humiliating punctuation mark to a three-decade career that included a record four unsuccessful campaigns for governor.

Despite having more statewide  experience than Crist, Gallagher was the source of many of his own problems, and never seemed to catch a break.

Gallagher could not compete with Crist’s energy, momentum and money, and his emphasis on social issues such as a ban on abortions and gay marriage seemed out of tune with voters’ concerns over skyrocketing property insurance costs.

Nor could Gallagher totally escape his own political past.

A former moderate from Miami, he alienated longtime supporters by running as a repackaged social conservative who advocated stricter abortion laws, a ban on gay marriage and opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

Gallagher’s campaign also was thrown off track by revelations of a messy divorce, and disclosures of buying and selling insurance stocks while he was insurance commissioner.

The stock trades led to a July finding by the Commission on Ethics that Gallagher may have violated state law — an embarrassment that led to speculation Gallagher might quit the race.

The ethics controversy was grist for a final blast of critical TV ads that questioned Gallagher’s integrity.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 6, 2006, 06:52:16]

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