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GOP rally centers on Congress

State lawmakers are proud of their accomplishments in Tallahassee. But as some consider U.S. office, they say they aren't happy with Washington.

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 10, 1999


ORLANDO -- As a state lawmaker, Adam Putnam proudly ticks off the accomplishments of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled Legislature, from record tax cuts to sweeping changes in education.

As a candidate for Congress, though, Putnam doesn't like what he sees in Washington. The Bartow legislator is disappointed that fellow Republicans there have accomplished little and repeatedly have lost to President Clinton in debates over spending and tax cuts.

"We've allowed ourselves to lose focus on the issues we ran on, and we haven't communicated very well," Putnam said at the Florida Republican convention, which ended Saturday night. "In Tallahassee, we've done it."

Putnam isn't the only Republican eager to run on successes in Florida and move from the state to the national capital.

State Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher confirmed Saturday he will run for the U.S. Senate seat held by retiring Republican Connie Mack. That sets up a Republican primary battle between Gallagher and U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs.

Billed as a celebration, the convention also highlighted the different attitudes toward Republican politicians in Tallahassee and Washington.

Republicans celebrated taking control of the Governor's Mansion, state Cabinet and the Legislature. They wildly applauded the Bush brothers, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the front-runner for the GOP nomination for president, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

But some Republicans expressed disappointment with Washington even as they warmly greeted members of Florida's congressional delegation.

Some said they agreed with George W. Bush, who complained last week about Republicans who focus too much on the economy and sound too harsh on social issues. Others said they were unhappy with House Republicans who defied the GOP leadership last week and voted to give patients the right to sue health maintenance organizations.

"It shows we've got some people who don't know what their principles are," said state House Speaker John Thrasher.

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Miami, one of the Republicans who voted for the health care legislation, shrugged off the criticism.

"These things are complicated; they aren't simple," he said. "There's a lot of frustration with HMOs."

McCollum, who in a well-received speech called for a flat-rate income tax and for abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, said afterward that he doesn't take the criticism of Washington personally.

"The public's uneasiness is with government as a whole and government's presence in their lives in ways they don't like or appreciate," he said.

The euphoria over the GOP takeover of Tallahassee is reminiscent of the excitement after the 1994 elections in Washington, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years. But combative U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is long gone. The GOP now holds just a five-vote advantage in the House, and Democrats are optimistic they will take back the chamber in 2000.

Florida Republicans said they are confident they will remain on top in state government and avoid the pitfalls that have plagued Congress. They point out they have advantages in Tallahassee that Republicans don't have in Washington.

Gov. Jeb Bush has worked well with fellow Republicans in the Legislature, while Republicans in Congress battle with Clinton, a Democrat. The GOP also controls more seats in the Legislature than in Congress, making it easier to consistently win key votes.

The Bush brothers' determination to avoid divisive fights and reach out to different constituencies increases the possibility of success, Republicans said.

"It is important to use language that draws people to you, that doesn't divide," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who left Orlando early to return to Tallahassee and attend the Florida State-Miami football game with a seventh-grader he is mentoring.

The state GOP convention reflected that approach while emphasizing issues beyond traditional Republican themes of lower taxes and less government.

Sessions on the environment and education, issues long considered Democrats' strong suit, were highlighted.

"This is a quality-of-life election cycle," Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas said. "That's never been our strong suit. This party needs to get on quality-of-life issues."

Cardenas, Florida's first Hispanic GOP chairman, joined another session that emphasized the GOP's state and national efforts to reach out to Hispanic and African-American voters. Although blacks make up only a tiny portion of Republican voters in Florida, Jeb Bush won 14 percent of the black vote last year.

"Perception is reality," said Renee Amoore, a black Philadelphia businesswoman who is director of African-American affairs for the Republican National Committee. "Perception is it's all white men, and we know that's not true. Do I look white?"

There are issues on the horizon that could threaten the rosy Republican outlook in Florida.

Term limits, an issue Congress doesn't have to worry about, will force 53 state House members and 11 state senators out of office next year. The Legislature that meets after the 2000 elections also will be one of the least-experienced in decades, which could force Bush and Republican lawmakers to downsize their agenda.

A battle over a proposed constitutional amendment that would end affirmative action efforts in state hiring, contracting and university admissions also could pose problems. While Bush and Cardenas see the amendment drive as divisive and have tried to discourage Californian Ward Connerly from pursuing the effort, Connerly has not backed down.

"There hasn't been one person who says they disagree," Connerly said Saturday as he worked the crowd at the Orange County Convention Center. "They say "stay with it, we regret the position our party is in.' "

Then there is the potentially divisive U.S. Senate primary between McCollum and Gallagher.

McCollum comes from the conservative wing of the party. Gallagher is considered more moderate. He indicated Saturday he will contrast the differences between Republican accomplishments in Tallahassee with the GOP in Washington.

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