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In political twist, Sen. George LeMieux sets groundwork for 2012

Sen. George LeMieux talks with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board on June 4.

LARA CERRI | Times

Sen. George LeMieux talks with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board on June 4.

WASHINGTON — All eyes will be on Florida's new U.S. senator the day after Tuesday's election. But at a Marriott in Palm Beach Gardens, the man currently occupying the office will be seeking some attention of his own.

For $25, members of the local chamber of commerce can hear George LeMieux give his take on the election, tout his support of small-business legislation and deliver a "review of his experience in the U.S. Senate."

LeMieux was not elected to the seat and he's not on the Nov. 2 ballot, but for the past month he has been engaged in a campaignlike sprint across Florida, talking to Republican and civic groups, touring businesses and presenting military medals.

He has attended dozens of events, logged thousands of miles by air and land. "I'm just doing my job," he says.

But LeMieux, 41, is also working to elevate his profile and lay the groundwork for a potential run for office. He has not only turned his back on the man who put him in this fairy-tale position — Gov. Charlie Crist — but is now working to keep Crist from getting there himself.

If the 2010 election cycle is recorded as one of the most fascinating and unpredictable in decades, LeMieux's story certainly belongs in the footnotes.

• • •

It began improbably when Mel Martinez quit the Senate last summer. Crist had to pick someone to serve the final 16 months. He had a menu of well-known figures, some with significant congressional experience, such as U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Pinellas County. Instead Crist picked his former chief of staff and 2006 campaign manager, ignoring charges of cronyism.

By all accounts, LeMieux threw himself into the job, proposing legislation, playing the loyal Republican soldier with attacks on the Democratic agenda and the president, yet still managing to win friends on both sides of the aisle.

LeMieux relentlessly promoted his efforts, stoking talk he wanted a full-time place in the Senate. He has not denied suggestions that he'll challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012. Any number of Republicans will step up, some with more name recognition than LeMieux, who lost the only political race of his career, a 1998 run for state House.

Which makes LeMieux's recent travel notable. He has been making the rounds since he was appointed, but with the end nearing, he has embarked on a schedule that rivals that of current Senate candidates Crist, Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek.

St. Petersburg, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Miami, Sarasota, Doral, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Naples, Hollywood, Hialeah, Palm City, Stuart . . .

He has been to Rotary clubs, bemoaned government spending at the chamber of commerce, toured VA hospitals and colleges, and dropped by an elementary school in Miami.

When early voting kicked off, there was LeMieux at a news conference in Jacksonville. Because he is traveling in his capacity as senator, taxpayers pick up the tab, same as when Nelson hits the road.

LeMieux insists he's only doing his job, but the volume of travel and his status as a placeholder show he's seeking something else, too.

"None of us had really known him before. It was like, 'LeMieux. Who the heck is he?' " said Carol Caprio, a Republican activist in Sarasota, where LeMieux spoke Oct. 15. "He's not a dynamic speaker like Rubio, but he said all the right things. I liked him."

In between, LeMieux's staff has sought out news interviews for him. The question invariably surfaces: Will you run for office? He answers like a politician, saying he'll decide with his wife after leaving the Senate in early January. LeMieux practiced law after leaving the governor's office in 2008.

• • •

Aside from intense travel as a senator, LeMieux has found time to drop in to events for Republican congressional candidates Sandy Adams and Dan Webster. He has hit the road with Rubio, praising him as the next big thing in national politics, a visionary.

It's a remarkable transformation. When LeMieux entered the Senate last year, he openly criticized Rubio, then trailing Crist.

"As time passes, the truth is going to come out about Marco Rubio that he's no conservative," he told the St. Petersburg Times in September 2009, listing among other things Rubio's support for a controversial property tax cut that would have raised the sales tax.

After Crist left the Republican Party when it was clear he could not beat Rubio in the primary, LeMieux, who has been involved in GOP politics since he was a teenager, said he could not support his friend.

And what about his hard criticism of Rubio? "In politics, you're never going to agree 100 percent with somebody in your own party," LeMieux said. "But by and large, he and I see things the same way."

LeMieux was also among those questioning Rubio's extensive use of Republican Party credit cards. He says he's comfortable now with Rubio's explanation that he paid for any personal items he charged.

"That's not the issue facing the country," LeMieux said, a line that sounds as though it could have come from Rubio himself. "The issue is which direction is this country headed."

LeMieux's loyalty to the party over Crist has annoyed some because if not for Crist, LeMieux never would have had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"George LeMieux is a Mount Everest of ambition shoehorned into a molehill of a man," Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said in April.

Crist himself said it was clear that LeMieux was playing politics and eyeing the next primary; the two have not spoken in a while.

Still, the move has won LeMieux fans, as have his positions in Congress. He has sided with the GOP on almost all issues but was one of two Republicans who broke ranks to support a small-business bill. LeMieux worked on some provisions and has been playing that up in his travels.

"A lot of people are real happy with this guy," said Pasco County Republican insider Bill Bunting. On a Saturday this month, Bunting invited LeMieux to a gun show in Tampa, a rite of passage for any aspiring candidate. Standing before a crowd, Bunting declared, "This is the type of individual we need to run for office."

LeMieux did not say he would, but, to Bunting, his face gave away the answer. "He had a smile from ear to ear."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

In political twist, Sen. George LeMieux sets groundwork for 2012 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 5:39pm]
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