Thompson's timing could suit Florida

It's not too late for the actor to make a splash in the state's wait-and-see GOP fundraising pool.

Published May 31, 2007

Republican presidential candidates have been hitting up Florida donors for months, so you might think actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson is too late getting in the game.

Not necessarily.

Underscoring how Jeb Bush's departure from Tallahassee has changed Florida's political scene, an overwhelming majority of President Bush's top political fundraisers in Florida are sitting on the sidelines so far in the 2008 presidential race. Of the 54 Floridians who raised at least $100,000 for Bush-Cheney in 2004, only 10 have given to any Republican contender to succeed Bush, a St. Petersburg Times review found.

Veteran Republican fundraisers attribute the hesitance to the mighty Florida Bush fundraising network no longer having a Bush on the ballot, to uncertainty or ambivalence about the current top-tier Republicans, to early supporters of unsuccessful 2006 gubernatorial Tom Gallagher wanting to play it safer this cycle and wait for a clear leader to emerge.

What's more, Gov. Charlie Crist is holding off on an endorsement and has quietly encouraged some key Republican fundraisers to wait as well.

"He's Florida's best fundraiser so he brings millions to the table. How many millions depends on whether he really cranks up his machine," said Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, a fundraiser for John McCain. "There's a lot of Republicans who are used to being told by the chain of command what to do. Without Jeb or Charlie doing that, there's a vacuum."

Whatever the reason so many key Republican check bundlers are uncommitted, Thompson has plenty of opportunity to raise money in Florida.

Democrats have raised more Florida money this year than Republicans, including $1.88-million for Hillary Rodham Clinton and more than $1-million for Barack Obama. Among top Republicans, Mitt Romney has raised about $991,000, McCain about $963,000 and Rudy Giuliani about $822,000.

Thompson's prospective candidacy has been generating considerable buzz among conservatives who are unenthusiastic about the current Republican field, and the former Tennessee senator is expected to create a political committee Monday to start a major fundraising drive.

The 64-year-old Law & Order actor has shown little sign of organization in Florida, but he has sparked interest. Even before he signaled a likely candidacy, about one in 10 Florida Republicans in a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll this month said they favored him.

"I think that he has an ability to energize the grass roots better than any of the current candidates," U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who is uncommitted, said Wednesday. "He has a conservative reputation and a very authoritative demeanor that people find appealing. He's got movie star attributes that he brings to the table."

The 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign dubbed people who raised at least $100,000 for the campaign "Pioneers" and people who raised at least $200,000 "Rangers."

Through March 31, five of those elite Bush fundraisers had contributed to or formally endorsed Romney, four were helping McCain, one was helping Giuliani, and one, private prisons executive George Zoley, had given to Democrat Bill Richardson. Richardson is governor of New Mexico, where Zoley's firm has state contracts.

Nancy Watkins, a Tampa accountant and Republican activist backing Romney, said comparing Republican fundraising this year to 2004 and 2000 is difficult because there is no longer a sitting governor helping his brother win or hold the White House.

"A lot of these Rangers may have had a longtime relationships with the Bush family, from the first President Bush to Jeb Bush, to George W.," agreed former Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa, a Ranger in 2004 who has not yet decided on a candidate this year.

All of the top presidential candidates have been courting Tampa developer Al Austin, the former state GOP finance chairman, but he hasn't made up his mind.

"It's hard to choose," Austin said. "My concern is, I want to line up with the one that has the best chance of winning, and at this point in time it's hard for me to determine in my own mind which one that is."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727893-8241.