In the four-way Republican primary for attorney general, the GOP is again being pulled toward the right and ideological purity.
The four candidates are roughly equally matched in statewide name recognition — none of them has much — and as they battle to emerge from the pack, the shootout is turning tough early.
If there is a frontrunner, it might be former circuit Judge Ashley Moody of Plant City, who faces three Republican state House members: Jay Fant of Jacksonville, Ross Spano of Dover and Frank White of Pensacola.
But that impression by some party insiders comes from evidence that's not conclusive: Moody's early fundraising lead; her endorsements from 33 Republican sheriffs, 10 state attorneys and outgoing Attorney General Pam Bondi; and being the only woman in a four-way race.
The only published polling, a robopoll by StPetePolls.org last month, showed a wide-open race with 69 percent undecided, Moody at 10 percent, Fant 9 percent, Spano 6 percent and White 4 percent.
What is clear is that Moody is a target for Fant and White, who are blasting her in an internet, direct mail and news release campaign as a "liberal judge," closet Democrat and anti-Trump.
Spano, who didn't file until after the attacks on Moody had begun, and who shares friends and allies with her in their east Hillsborough County home base, has avoided joining in.
Moody is fighting back by emphasizing her own experience in law enforcement, as a judge and prosecutor, which the other three, though all lawyers, don't have.
It the primary a race to the right?
"I hope so," said Fant in an interview after a forum for the candidates last weekend.
None of the four is what most people would call a liberal.
All have proclaimed themselves backers of gun rights, opponents of abortion, and in favor of the "sanctuary cities" bill House Speaker Richard Corcoran is seeking to push through the Legislative.
In an Orlando forum Saturday before a large crowd of conservative lawyers and judges in the Federalist Society:
— White, who repeatedly proclaims himself "a consistent and principled conservative," promised to protect Florida from "threats from the left, from liberals – Democratic and Republican alike."
— Spano promised to "check the power of the government that has begun to usurp in our individual lives" citing the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations, and spoke emotionally of his opposition to abortion and the Roe v. Wade decision.
— Fant said he "may be the only tort reformer in the House of Representatives" and spoke of his relationship with Trump.
— Moody promised to oppose "over-regulation," praised "my friend Gov. Scott" and said she supports Trump and his agenda.
But Moody appeared to be the top target on the stage, as Fant and White repeated charges they've lodged against her.
The back-and-forth got about as heated as it could in front of a crowd of well-dressed judges and lawyers in a huge Disney hotel banquet hall.
"I felt like I was back in junior high school," said Spano.
Previously, Fant had publicly demanded, to no avail, that Moody be barred from a December state Republican Party meeting, contending she's not a genuine Republican.
His evidence: Her family was part of a 2010 fraud lawsuit against The Trump Organization over the failed Trump Tower Tampa condominium, in which dozens of buyers lost their deposits and sued; former President Bill Clinton appointed Moody's father to a federal judgeship; and she once worked as an assistant to then-American Bar Association President Martha Barnett of Tampa, a Democrat, who recently co-hosted a fundraiser for Moody.
He repeated those charges in form of questions directed at Moody during the forum, adding that she had donated to Democrat Bill McBride against Republican Jeb Bush in the 2002 campaign for governor.
Moody responded the litigation "has nothing to do with me being a conservative or me supporting our president and his conservative agenda" and called the attacks "unworthy of the office of Attorney General."
White pointedly asked Moody whether she supports allowing open carry of firearms on government property including college campuses, which many state law enforcement officers, including some sheriffs backing Moody, oppose.
In the forum, she didn't answer directly, saying she would have to see specifics of the legislation. Later, however, a campaign spokeswoman said Moody does support campus carry.
When he couldn't ask Moody another question because of the forum rules, Fant still found a way to go after her —he asked the only Democrat at the forum, consumer lawyer Ryan Torrens of Tampa, "What positions do you share with Judge Moody?"
Torrens simply said he didn't know — "I'm running as my own man."
White has sent out a mailer attacking Moody on the same allegations that she's tainted by a Democratic past, and set up a web site, "Liberaljudge.com."
Moody wasn't the only target in the forum.
She and Spano, a civil lawyer, used questions to highlight Fant's comparative lack of experience practicing law – he's chairman of a bank – and White's comparative lack of experience in criminal law.
Fant responded that policy and executive experience are key to the job, and said business and management experience matter. White said the most important qualification is to be "a principled and consistent conservative."
Asked whether they were criticizing her because she's a frontrunner, Fant and White denied it.
White said the voters haven't had time to form meaningful opinions yet, and Fant said, "Despite her protestations, she's the leftward candidate."
Both said they doubted that gender will affect the outcome in a Republican primary as it might in a Democratic primary, but Spano disagreed.
"There aren't as many women in politics, and all other things being equal, a certain percentage even among the Republican electorate might say let's give the woman a chance," he said.
In an interview, Moody didn't claim the title of frontrunner but said of the attacks, "Sometimes that indicates who people believe has the best chance of success."
Her experience as a former judge and prosecutor sets her apart, she said.
"I think there's going to have to be a response from my opponents as to why they don't have the same support from the law enforcement community."
As of the end of December, Moody, who filed in June just after Fant, had raised the most money from other contributors, about $1.5 million in her campaign, an independent committee and financial aid from the state party.
White, who filed in November, has raised about $2 million including $1.5 million from himself.
Fant has raised about $292,000 and loaned his campaign $750,000.
Spano, the latest to file in the race, has raised about $99,000 in his campaign and independent committee.