Loyalties divided among Republican elite in Fla.
Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 12:10 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida's top Republican Party leaders and activists are nearly as divided in their support for GOP presidential candidates as the rest of the state, where polls show the winner-take-all contest for the state's 57 delegates is still up for grabs.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani can all point to help from former Gov. Jeb Bush's team of advisers. The Republican members of the state Cabinet are divided between Romney and Giuliani. McCain and Romney have the largest share of backers from the state's congressional delegation.
And not to be overlooked, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was able to scoop up a couple of notable names even though he was an afterthought in Florida for most of the race leading up to Tuesday's primary.
But when it comes down to it, the names touted by the candidates probably won't be enough to sway the vast majority of voters who don't pay attention to inside politics. Two of Florida's most well-known political figures, Bush and Gov. Charlie Crist, haven't endorsed anyone publicly.
"If everybody in the so-called Florida establishment were behind one candidate, that would be one thing, but there are some divided loyalties here," said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor. "The contacts help — I'd rather have them than not have them — but they won't carry you to victory."
When Romney arrived at The Villages retirement community a year ago as the first announced presidential candidate to visit Florida, he had an impressive team behind him that included many of Bush's closest advisers and allies.
It included former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings; former campaign manager Sally Bradshaw and Bush's hand-picked party chairman, Al Cardenas, among others. All said Bush encouraged them to consider Romney before deciding whom to support.
Others close to the president's brother have looked to different campaigns. His son, Jeb Jr., is supporting Giuliani, as is Karen Unger, who ran Bush's successful 2002 re-election campaign. And McCain has former Bush chief of staff Kathleen Shanahan in his corner, along with former communications director Cory Tilley and others who served under the governor.
While Romney was the most aggressive at building a team here early, each of the candidates can point to prominent support.
Many of the people closely tied to Crist's 2006 campaign are in the McCain camp, including Tallahassee lobbyists Brian Ballard and Mac Stipanovich, but Crist's lead fundraiser and close friend Brent Sembler is with Romney.
Part of Crist's reason for not endorsing anyone is he doesn't want to take attention away from his efforts to pass a constitutional amendment on the ballot designed to lower property taxes.
Another reason is because Giuliani, McCain and Romney all helped his campaign and he doesn't want to hurt at least two people who helped him.
"They're all great people and great leaders," Crist said.
Of the two Republican Cabinet members, Attorney General Bill McCollum is backing Giuliani and has campaigned extensively with the former mayor. While not as visible on the campaign trail, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson supports Romney.
Florida's Republican congressional delegation has also been split among the candidates. Romney claims Tom Feeney, Ander Crenshaw, Ginny Brown-Waite and Connie Mack, while McCain has locked up all three Cuban-American Congress members, brothers Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as Ric Keller and Jeff Miller.
Even Huckabee scored a couple of big endorsements.
Sen. Daniel Webster, a former House speaker who is a favorite of Christian conservatives; House Speaker Marco Rubio, a powerful figure in Miami's Cuban-American community; and Tom Stemberger, a social conservative leader who runs the Florida Family Policy Council and organized a petition drive seeking to ban gay marriage, have all backed the former Baptist minister.
Beyond well-known public officials, the behind-the-scenes supporters can play a large role in raising money, tapping into business networks and organizing grass-roots support.
"It's hard to estimate how much of an impact it might have, but it does have some and in a close race like this it helps to have some of those tools," said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based political consultant who ran President Bush's Florida operation in 2004 and is uncommitted in this race.
Democratic candidates have been boycotting Florida since last fall because the state violated national party rules by moving up its primary ahead of Feb. 5. Before then, however, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama began putting together Florida teams that included prominent names.
Clinton wrapped up the endorsements of Florida's three black Congress members — Alcee Hastings, Corrine Brown and Kendrick Meek — as well as Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who, along with Meek, has been a leader of the "30 Something" working group of young House Democrats who reach out to younger voters.
Clinton also has the support of Bill McBride, who won the Democratic nomination to challenge Bush in 2002.
Obama won over U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, and has the support of prominent Democratic fundraiser Kirk Wagar, a Miami lawyer who previously helped Janet Reno's bid for governor, 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry and Jim Davis, who was the Democrats' nominee for governor in 2006.
Among state lawmakers supporting Obama are Loranne Ausley, who also chairs Florida Mainstream Democrats, and Sen. Tony Hill, who made national news by staging a sit-in with Meek in the governor's office complex to protest Jeb Bush's efforts to end affirmative action protections in state contracting and university admissions.
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