ORLANDO — Florida Republicans sought to present a unified front Saturday in hopes of quelling discontent with Gov. Charlie Crist, potential backlash over his U.S. Senate appointment and a party spending scandal.
"We have woken up, and we are ready to win, and we have one team with one fight,'' Crist told hundreds of party activists at the Gaylord Palms Hotel & Convention Center. "The fight is not among us. The fight is with the Democrats.''
With a growing number of local Republican parties taking informal votes overwhelmingly favoring conservative Marco Rubio over Crist for U.S. Senate, the governor has been aggressively reaching out to the party's activist base. In recent days, he has called hundreds of local GOP officials to get their feedback on replacing retiring U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez.
"All of a sudden, he's found that the party is important,'' said Broward state committeeman Ed Kennedy, who said Rubio can't be counted out in the Senate primary. "You can't forget your conservative base.''
The Orlando event was the state party's quarterly meeting, as well as a special youth conference aimed at bringing more young people into the Republican fold. Such gatherings tend to be dominated by the most conservative and active members of the party, and many lapels bore Rubio stickers.
And everywhere, people were talking about whom Crist might and should appoint to succeed Martinez. The short list includes U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores; former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith; state Sen. Dan Webster; state Rep. Jennifer Carroll; former Jacksonville Mayor and University of North Florida president John Delaney; former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez of Miami; and George LeMieux, Crist's former chief of staff and campaign manager.
The governor is bound to disappoint some people. Activists are pulling the governor in as many directions as there are names on his short list, depending on their hometown and other allegiances.
"Mike Bilirakis!'' shouted former state Rep. Lindsay Harrington of Charlotte County as he passed the governor, recommending the former U.S. representative from Palm Harbor.
"I'm getting lots of advice,'' said Crist, who added he would likely make a decision next week and doubted any more names would be added to the short list.
A group of party chairmen passed a resolution urging Crist to appoint a conservative who opposes the federal economic stimulus plan, climate change legislation, health care reform, abortion and same-sex marriage. Crist campaigned for the stimulus plan alongside President Barack Obama in the spring, but more recently has swung toward more conservative positions, such as opposing the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Also fueling discontent among the party faithful were revelations that former state House Speaker Ray Sansom had spent more than $170,000 on his state party credit card. For months, state party chairman Jim Greer had been dismissing critics who said the party was hiding improper spending on party credit cards, but Sansom's lavish spending on flowers, electronics and clothing had elected officials and party regulars fuming.
"The kind of expenses that were charged are an embarrassment," Crist said. "Let's say it how it is. I try to honor the will of the people, whether they're taxpayers or contributors."
Pasco state committeeman Bill Bunting was livid: "It's offensive to us in the grass roots. We don't get salaries, we work hard, and then to turn around and see that is discouraging."
Greer quickly moved to tamp down the controversy, cutting up his American Express card in front of the crowd and announcing that now only the party's chief financial officer will have a card. But he suggested the controversy was much ado about nothing and brushed off suggestions that he should release the detailed statements for his credit card and those of other party leaders, saying the GOP is a private organization.
"There's nothing inappropriate occurring. The budget chairman knows it, the treasurer knows it, and the assistant treasurer knows it,'' said Greer, who had taken away Sansom's card nearly a year ago. "I am tired, as you are, of reading this garbage that is being promoted by people that ultimately want this party to fail."
Republicans disenchanted with Crist and Greer, meanwhile, are pushing to have more local party "straw polls" on the Senate race to boost Rubio's name recognition and embarrass Crist, the front-runner.
"We're going to continue county by county, all through this state," said Tony DiMatteo, state committeeman in Crist's home county of Pinellas.
But the polls are unwelcome by many party leaders who say they are splintering Republicans in the runup to the 2010 election. Party leaders on Friday night knocked down an effort to hold a statewide straw poll.
"Supposedly they don't matter," Rubio said of the local party activist votes. "They matter to me. That's the first wave of political involvement."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]