Is Crist win sign of shift for GOP?

Charlie Crist could be on the way to giving a more moderate face to the state Republican Party.

Published September 7, 2006

The incoming leader of Florida's Republican Party, Charlie Crist, lost no time Wednesday announcing the support of current GOP boss and Florida's most popular politician, Gov. Jeb Bush.

Just 15 hours after capturing the GOP nomination for governor, Crist told about 40 supporters at his St. Petersburg headquarters that he would spend today hop-scotching the state with Bush, who had remained neutral in the primary between Crist and Tom Gallagher.

"The Jeb Bush era has not ended," Crist said. "It still exists and it's important to me."

But even as Crist banks on Bush's high approval ratings - 56 percent in a St. Petersburg Times poll last month - to help him win the Governor's Mansion, Tuesday's election results suggest Republican politics in Florida may be evolving. And the post-Jeb Bush leadership is far less disciplined in subscribing to conservative ideology.

The evidence from Tuesday's results:

- Crist won nearly two out of three Republican votes despite a campaign platform that differs sharply in key areas from Bush and the conservative wing of the party - the voters credited two years ago with delivering Florida for President Bush's re-election.

- Florida's Senate probably will have a divided Republican caucus come November after a bitter effort, endorsed by Bush, narrowly failed to unseat moderate Republican Sen. J. Alex Villalobos of Miami. Villalobos was targeted for defeat by his own party after he bucked Bush during the 2006 legislative session by voting against school vouchers and a plan to weaken the state's class size amendment.

- Even Bush stepped toward the middle of his party earlier this year when he endorsed moderate Republican state Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville in a primary against Randall Terry, a well-known abortion opponent. King easily won Tuesday night.

The developments suggest that if Crist is elected in November, the heyday for social conservative Republican politics in Florida could be ending. At the very least, they won't enjoy nearly the same influence as they did under Bush.

That's one of the reasons, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said last week as he campaigned for Gallagher, that Christian conservatives pushed Gallagher to stay in the race even though polls showed he couldn't win.

"It is so important that we have a voice," Baxley said, "because we are losing Jeb Bush."

Crist called himself a conservative on the GOP primary trail and said he opposed abortions. But he also told a TV audience last month during a debate with Gallagher that he had a "live and let live" attitude about such things as gay rights.

His positions include allowing same-sex civil unions in Florida, supporting the status quo on Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that made abortion legal, and spending millions more dollars on education programs that could leave far less money for tax relief.

By contrast, Gallagher, the state's chief financial officer, said he was opposed to abortion and gay marriage and would continue Bush's effort to try to repeal a costly, voter-approved class-size reduction plan. He only collected 33 percent of Tuesday night's vote.

But Bush, Baxley and even Villalobos caution against reading Tuesday's primary results as a sign that social conservatives are losing political muscle in Florida.

Villalobos, while a moderate Republican on many issues, is Catholic and won the endorsement of Florida Right to Life, the Florida Catholic Conference and the National Rifle Association.

"I think it wasn't a conservative issue. It was a special interest issue," said Villalobos, whose opponent was heavily backed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and business lobbyists and their clients. "They tried to buy the election for their clients who make millions off of giving contributions to senators who vote not based on principles, but based on profit."

Another sign conservative voters still have clout: Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms' easy primary win Tuesday night against moderate Sandra Murman, a former state House member from Tampa. Storms, a conservative Christian, won 47 percent of the vote in a three-way Republican primary for the state Senate seat being vacated by Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico.

Lee, a moderate Republican, won Tuesday night's Republican primary for chief financial officer.

Ken Connor, who ran for governor in 1994 and formerly led Florida Right to Life, said Tuesday's results reflect the fact that the Republican gubernatorial primary lacked a candidate to energize social conservatives, in part because Gallagher spent most of his career as a moderate.

"You clearly had Tom Gallagher articulate very strong social conservative positions, but with a history that doesn't really back that up. You've got Charlie who's never been a friend to social conservatives," said Connor, who endorsed no one in the primary. "With the recognition that values voters made the difference in '04, lots of people are making appeals to those voters. But they didn't fall off the turnip truck. They sift through and try to evaluate who's for real here."

And Bush, through a spokesman, said Wednesday that he believed Crist's platform does advance Bush's conservative agenda. The spokesman and former Bush campaign staffer Karen Unger noted that candidates repeatedly used the governor's image in their campaigns. "This is not the emergency of a new RPOF Republican Party of Florida," she said, "rather it is an RPOF that is energized and united behind our nominee."

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Joni James can be reached at jjames@sptimes.com or (850)224 7263.