Florida's GOP elite split over hopefuls


Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 12:08 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - 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 Bush.

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. Sen. Mel Martinez endorsed McCain on Friday.

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.

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