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GOP: Gallagher decision for the good of the party

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- "For the good of the party," Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher stepped out of the U.S. Senate race and into a spot he knows well: running for State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner.

Appearing with Gov. Jeb Bush and Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, Gallagher said Thursday he agreed to seek the state job to save the party from an ugly primary fight that could have left the Republican Senate nominee too battered to win in November.

"I'm not saying I didn't want to be a U.S. senator," Gallagher said. "But you have to work with the party if you want to be successful."

And, in two years, Gallagher said he might well be among the candidates for the state's new chief financial officer job. That job, combining the duties of insurance commissioner and comptroller, is expected to become a good jumping-off point for those who want to run for governor.

Gallagher's move clears the field for U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, the only other Republican in the Senate race, to take on Democratic state Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. The governor formally endorsed Gallagher, despite the presence of other Republicans in the insurance commissioner's race. Bush said he is also endorsing McCollum.

Thursday, U.S. Sen. Connie Mack joined McCollum, Bush and Cardenas on a conference call to discuss the race.

They said the switch will unite Florida Republicans and help the entire ticket from top -- where Bush's brother, George W. Bush, is running for president -- to bottom.

Bush said he does not think Republicans Tim Ireland and Greg Gay, the other candidates still in the insurance race, are unqualified, but believes Gallagher is the best qualified. Ireland labeled the move "back room dealmaking," but also insisted he remains loyal to the governor.

Gay didn't return telephone calls, but several friends say they expect him to drop out. Rep. Joe Arnall, R-Jacksonville, left the race and endorsed Gallagher.

"The Republican Party tent is shrinking fast," said Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe. "They've cleared the way for one of the most extreme right-wing members of Congress to be at the top of their Florida ticket. This Republican Party lineup is manufactured by the right wing for the right wing."

Bush traced Gallagher's move to a conversation last week with Cardenas after state Senate President Toni Jennings decided to get out of the insurance race.

Monday night, Cardenas took the idea to Gallagher over dinner.

On Tuesday, Bush said Gallagher and Cardenas came to his office to discuss the proposal. Gallagher asked for time to think it over and agreed Wednesday to switch races.

Gallagher served as insurance commissioner from 1988-95. He was elected education commissioner in 1998 and had submitted his resignation to run for the Senate.

State Rep. John Cosgrove of Miami is the only Democrat in the insurance race.

-- Staff writers Tim Nickens and William Yardley contributed to this report.

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