Florida's GOP Senate candidates court tea party vote at Pinellas forum

PINELLAS PARK — The route to a tea party-led political forum ultimately required turning to the right.

That posed little trouble Sunday to the four top U.S. Senate candidates seeking the Republican Party's nomination to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson next year.

The top GOP candidates hued to conservative planks — too much federal spending, too much regulation, too much globalism — and the chance of attracting Tampa Bay area tea party activists.

With each candidate polishing his conservative appeal, it was a place where President Barack Obama-led health care changes should be repealed and where spending should be axed in some federal departments to stave off the spiraling debt crisis.

It also was where global warming caused by humans was theory, and where the United Nations' agenda could be creeping too closely to controlling local government.

"I don't believe in man-made global warming. I don't buy into the alarmist mentality out there that the world is coming to an end," said candidate Adam Hasner, a former Florida House majority leader from Boca Raton.

He chalked up climate change to an "agenda" by some to control the economy and make the country fit in with global wishes.

The applause came quickly.

Sunday's forum at a community association's clubhouse was not a typical venue for the top GOP candidates — Hasner, Mike Haridopolos, George LeMieux, Mike McCalister — to look for support in the 2012 election.

An estimated 170 people nearly filled a terrazzo-floor clubhouse, where a small stage was festooned with flags, within the Mainlands of Tamarac community. A few passers-by rubbernecked at a sign highlighting the afternoon event.

"Tea party is an ideology, it's not a party," Deborah Cox-Roush, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Hillsborough County, said afterward.

The candidates didn't debate, but each took 20 minutes of questions prepared by organizers.

Not everything went lockstep.

Haridopolos, Hasner and LeMieux tiptoed around their own records of supporting rail projects in the past.

"That's one of their problems. They were trying to push that to pass," said Sharon Calvert, a leading rail opponent and tea party leader from Tampa.

Calvert and other tea party activists were successful in getting Gov. Rick Scott to kill an Orlando-Tampa high-speed train route. They also generally want Scott to reject a commuter rail, SunRail, in Central Florida.

Asked to pledge to oppose any rail in the future, the three men had to explain their past support.

Like Hasner, Haridopolos voted for the commuter rail project, though he ultimately balked at the high-speed rail plan.

LeMieux said he would rather high-speed rail money go toward reducing the debt, but it already had been allocated by the time he got to Washington.

"I supported high-speed rail. I know that's not the view you wanted to hear," said LeMieux, once a chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist whom Crist had appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Only McCalister, a retired Army colonel, was able to promise to oppose any rail without having a record of supporting it.

On health care, the candidates didn't provide enough details on their own plans to improve the problem of costs and coverage, said event organizer Barb Haselden of St. Petersburg, leader of the South Pinellas 9/12 tea party group.

"I think with health care reform that we have to have a strong alternative," she said.

Yet she was effusive at the results of the event. The crowd was near capacity. Nobody fell in with Obama. The candidates offered choices for activists.

"There's hope," she said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Florida's GOP Senate candidates court tea party vote at Pinellas forum 06/26/11 [Last modified: Monday, June 27, 2011 12:08am]

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