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Times tough for socially conservative Republicans
After a decade of flexing their muscles, activists aren't happy.
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published February 5, 2008
Barbara Wilcox of Tampa is a committed Christian and socially conservative Republican whose fiercely held views are sharpened by decades of political activism.
But the retired Realtor is already on her third presidential candidate - from Fred Thompson to Mike Huckabee to Mitt Romney - and is running out of choices, which she's not happy about.
"He's very liberal," Wilcox says dismissively of GOP front-runner John McCain. "He's good for war, but I don't think he's good for the people of the United States. He doesn't listen."
For Wilcox and other social and religious conservatives in Florida, these are tough times. After a decade of playing a prominent role in state politics that helped engineer a Republican takeover and Jeb Bush's two terms as governor, such voters now appear out of step with their party's leaders.
They are ambivalent about McCain and disapprove of Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement of McCain. They also are alarmed at Crist's willingness to expand gambling - a social vice, in their view - to balance the state budget.
"The governor was very clear in his campaign that he would not expand gambling," said Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, a leader of Florida Family Policy Council. "It's very disappointing."
Lately, about all that Stemberger and other social conservatives have to cheer about is having collected enough signatures last Friday to get the so-called marriage protection amendment on the November ballot. If the proposal wins support from more than 60 percent of voters, it would define marriage in the state Constitution as solely between a man and a woman and could yet galvanize a strong turnout by religious or so-called values voters.
The Florida Legislature passed a law in 2001, the Defense of Marriage Act, that denies recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.
Wilcox worships at the 10,000-member Idlewild Baptist Church and twice was appointed by Jeb Bush to a panel that recommends judicial candidates to the governor.
Asked to name a Republican she wishes were running for president, she answers without hesitation: "Jeb Bush."
Bush is nowhere to be seen in campaign 2008, and has not endorsed any candidate.
Florida social conservatives' alienation from the Republican Party may have begun the night in September 2006 when Crist captured the GOP nomination for governor by trouncing Tom Gallagher, who ran on a socially conservative platform.
Wilcox, 74, volunteered for Gallagher in 2006. She disdains Crist's moderate politics as "wishy-washy" and is ill at ease with the notion that the governor has neither a wife nor children Crist is divorced.
Across the state in Fort Lauderdale, Barbara Collier, a longtime GOP activist and member of Florida Family Policy Council, said Crist "looks good and looks convincing." But she still voted against the property tax cut he championed and declined to assess his performance.
She's upset with McCain for not initially supporting President Bush's tax cuts (he favors them now) and for supporting a campaign-finance bill with a liberal Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
"I don't know what's happening to our country," Collier said. "It's slowly being taxed away and given away."
One prominent social conservative who's not so downbeat is Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden. A Huckabee supporter, he said the ex-Arkansas governor did well in last week's Florida primary with no money for TV ads or mailings.
"Mike Huckabee has moved the debate in this election to the middle of where most Republicans are, more than any other candidate," Webster said.
Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer dismisses criticism that Crist is out of step with the conservative wing of his party, and said "stale politics" must give way to a broader, more inclusive approach to governing.
"The voters of Florida are very pleased with Gov. Crist's performance and are tired of breathing the same old stale air of politics," Greer said. "The dynamics of politics are changing. No one particular segment of our party dominates the outcome."
Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Lutz Republican who has overcome challenges from social conservative candidates, senses that they are distraught.
"They're having a hard time," Ambler said. "But the Republican tent is a big tent, and I think the sense of the public is that we have larger issues that need to take center stage - property taxes, insurance, the economy."