tampabay.com

Gallagher latest victim of Nice Guy; Davis next?

By HOWARD TROXLER
Published September 6, 2006


In a simpler and more efficient world, things would have worked out like this.

Right after the 2004 election, the boss of the Republican Party of Florida would have put Tom Gallagher, Charlie Crist, and Katherine Harris in the same room and locked the door.

“Tom,’’ the party boss would have said, “you’re going to be governor, like you wanted to be back in ’94.’

“Charlie, you’re going to be U.S. senator, like you wanted to be back in ’98, and like your mentor Connie Mack.

“And Katherine, you’re going to be ambassador to Fiji. Jeb’s got it all worked out with the White House. So start packing.’’

But there was no boss like that around. So when 2006 came, Crist and Gallagher ran against each other to be the Republican nominee for governor.

One of them was doomed to be voted off the island in Tuesday’s primary, and the loser turned out to be Gallagher — by a surprisingly large margin.

Meanwhile, Harris limped home in a four-way primary, losing roughly half the vote to three challengers. Damaged goods or not, she is the top of the Republican ticket in November, with only a snowball-in-Florida’s chance against

Sen. Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat.

What a strange end for Gallagher.

He was a state legislator, moderate to downright progressive (before that was a bad thing). He had a veteran’s familiarity with policy, serving as state treasurer, insurance commissioner and (as he enjoyed pointing out) state fire marshal.

He was education commissioner, too. Under the new Cabinet that took effect in 2002, he became Florida’s first chief financial officer.

But when Gallagher ran this time, he ran primarily as a social conservative. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity.

But it was still weird to hear the old Tallahassee hand now thumping on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Some people will say this lost him the election, but I don’t think so — I don’t think it mattered. Gallagher wasn’t going to beat Crist by having better position papers, or by debating points, or by calling him liberal, either.

The Crist campaign is not a buzzsaw, but a big, friendly, comfy pillow. You can punch it all you want without much result.

The fact is, a lot of people just plain like Crist. They like the way he looks, or the way he treats them. Like former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (the only person to date to beat Crist, when Crist challenged him in 1998), Crist today is Florida’s best personality politician.

And if on top of that, Crist says he is against crime, high taxes and high electric bills and he is pro-consumer, well, who disagrees?

As for the Democrats, they had a choice Tuesday between Jim Davis, the nice-guy member of Congress from Tampa, or Rod Smith, the state senator from Gainesville with just the right amount of drawl. They were leaning toward the Nice Guy.

Mind you, there is some risk to that. The Democrats tried Nice Guys in 1998 (Buddy MacKay) and 2002 (Bill McBride). Some Democrats were in the market for change.

Smith tried to oblige. He was a gun-totin’ social progressive, able to talk huntin’ and fishin’ in North Florida and to put murderers on death row as a state attorney. But he also was a co-sponsor of the ERA, a supporter of abortion rights, civil unions and other big-city stuff.

Unfortunately, Smith then developed a little problem. He mutated into Big Sugar Boy.

The U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston decided to plunge into the Democratic race on Smith’s side. It was the most heavy-handed, blatant such effort from Big Sugar in anybody’s memory.

Using false fronts such as Florida’s Working Families and the Coalition for Truth and Justice, U.S. Sugar rather cynically spent millions trying to convince voters that Davis had been a lousy member of Congress. Meanwhile, Smith didn’t do much to distance himself.

Did Big Sugar’s attacks backfire on Smith? Or did they really hurt Davis? I think they did both, swaying casual voters more easily influenced by such attacks, while turning off hard-core Democrats more worried about the environment.

Oh, well. Now Davis has his chance to figure out the Crist phenomenon. If he, like Gallagher and others before him, expects to beat Crist on points, by having snappier answers to debate questions or by having a higher SAT score, he might as well quit now.