Gallagher, Crist make late plays for voters


Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
LAKELAND - The front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Charlie Crist, is an old high school quarterback, and he broke out the gridiron analogies Thursday, promising he wouldn't just run out the clock until Tuesday's primary vote.
Crist was telling supporters that Republicans need to "put their best player on the field" for the November election to replace term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush.
But his opponent, Tom Gallagher, is running his own hurry-up offense, barnstorming the state in hopes of a Hail Mary victory.
Gallagher launched a three-day bus tour through the northern half of the state early Thursday, shaking nearly 100 hands at a popular east Hillsborough County eatery, Fred's Market in Plant City.
A microcosm of the challenge facing Gallagher was evident among a Plant City Church of God group that meets every Thursday for breakfast at Fred's.
The seven women in the group all said they planned to vote, but most weren't sure for whom. Several said they wanted to vote for the candidate who best reflected the values of their church, but they weren't sure Gallagher is their guy, even though they were aware of his efforts to portray himself as the campaign's "real conservative." After all, they said, Crist claims he is the standard bearer for conservatives in this election.
"It is confusing," said Faye Hall, who doesn't know which candidate to believe and plans to research their positions over the weekend on the Internet.
To Linda Strickland, candidates who try to appeal to churchgoers give her pause. She doesn't know if they're sincere or if they're just being politicians.
"I don't want them to use that as a reason," she said of the political appeal being made to people of faith like herself.
But after meeting Gallagher's wife, Strickland gave her an unqualified thumbs-up.
"She's his best asset," Strickland said. "Sort of like Laura Bush."
Meeting Gallagher at Fred's seemed to harden the position of Shirley Bennett.
"I think he's very straight-forward," she said. "He seems to know the issues. "But he should know them by now," she added referring to Gallagher's two-decades-plus of holding public office and his fourth run for governor.
Despite polls showing him down by more than 20 percentage points to Crist, Gallagher says the more voters learn about the candidates, the more likely they'll vote for him.
"As they're making up their minds, they're coming our way," he said.
Gallagher is also banking on voters like Dixie Hern, a Lakeland resident who said Crist's tolerance toward gay civil unions turned her off.
"He believes in civil unions and as a Christian I can't vote for that," said Hern, who went to a Gallagher rally Thursday at The Estates at Carpenters, a senior center in Lakeland. She said she would "walk and talk till I don't have any breath" this weekend stumping for Gallagher.
But the negativity of the campaign didn't appeal to Edith Evans, who moved into the senior center a year ago. Gallagher's stump speech standard of mentioning his family as a way to remind voters that Crist lives alone, as well as Crist's frequent mention of trust as a way to jog voters' memories about pending ethics charges against Gallagher, makes her shake her head.
"This is why I hate politics, there's so much lying going on," she said.
Crist's last few days on the primary campaign trail are also being spent traversing the state. But he's focusing on his own supporters, scheduling time with volunteers waving signs on street corners and calling Republican voters.
Crist started Thursday in the Panhandle before returning to the heart of Crist country, his hometown of St. Petersburg, where he waved signs with supporters.
A pastor at the Gulf Coast Community Church of St. Petersburg, Jerry Cisar, stopped driving and walked over to ask Crist about his views on abortion.
Gallagher, formerly a self-described "pro-choice" candidate in the 1990s, has changed his views and battered Crist on the issue. Gallagher supports an abortion ban; Crist supports the status quo and has voted against a 24-hour waiting period.
Cisar told Crist he appreciated his fiscal conservatism, but said, "There's a whole lot of argument over whether you're pro-life or not."
"I am," Crist said, adding that he would not use the issue as a litmus test for selecting judges.
Cisar said he appreciated the answer, but remained undecided on who he would vote for.
Crist's biggest problem may be dampening his supporters' confidence. Many in St. Petersburg addressed him as "governor," to which he quickly replied, "Not yet."
Tony DiMatteo, the chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party and a staunch Crist supporter, said the campaign was taking nothing for granted.
"We don't talk about the polls, we treat everything like we're 10 points behind," he said.
But he couldn't help looking ahead to even bigger things for Crist..
"He's going to be governor. You never know what the future could be. Presidents come from southern governors. So you never know," DiMatteo said.

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