Gov. Crist's rejection of GOP has complicated life for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp

When Gov. Charlie Crist bolted from the Republican Party in April, he called it a "declaration of independence."

It was a savvy marketing ploy by a politician in deep trouble who needed to reinvent himself to have any hope of being elected to the U.S. Senate.

The day Crist did that, some Republican insiders now say, Jeff Kottkamp should have immediately declared his independence from Charlie Crist and resigned as lieutenant governor.

That's because Kottkamp is now a Republican candidate for attorney general, and he is coveting the very voters who despise Crist the most: conservative Republicans.

"Kottkamp is in trouble because he and Charlie Crist were a pair for 3 1/2 years," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who supports one of Kottkamp's rivals, Holly Benson.

Did Kottkamp ever think about quitting?

"Not for a second," he said. "I have a job to do."

He cited his duties overseeing the state Office of Drug Control, the board of directors of Space Florida and the Children's Cabinet, a largely advisory panel.

"I was not about to stop serving the citizens of Florida who elected me as well," he said.

But everybody knows the job of lieutenant governor is light-duty stuff, and cynics might note that by staying put, Kottkamp gets to keep the state-owned SUV and state trooper that keeps him visible traveling around the state.

Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist not working for any of the candidates, says Kottkamp blew a golden opportunity by not severing ties with Crist.

"He would have been a hero to the Republican right," Wilson said. "He would have been well-defined. He didn't make that choice. It is what it is."

Can Kottkamp overcome the Crist albatross and beat his two rivals, Benson and Pam Bondi? The result on Aug. 24 will tell us a lot of the depth of hostility toward the newly-nonpartisan governor on the political right.

Kottkamp knows this, but these days he speaks of how his alliance with Crist means nothing — even though his rivals would be wise to refer to him as "Charlie Crist's right-hand man."

"So what?" Kottkamp said. "I'm my own guy. I have my own track record."

Benson also has ties to Crist: She ran two state agencies for him. But she says voters will judge her on her record.

Many Republican voters aren't aware that Kottkamp is totally estranged from Crist. Their relationship fizzled long ago, and both men confirmed in interviews this week that they haven't spoken in months.

So much for the Crist-Kottkamp "team" that captured 52 percent of the vote in 2006.

Crist picked Kottkamp, a well-liked state House member from Cape Coral, to give him a reliable partner who, despite his affinity for the trial bar, had a generally conservative voting record.

But that was then. Now, Crist is a pariah in Republican circles. Activists jeered at the mere mention of his name two weeks ago at a Hillsborough County GOP dinner.

Perhaps Kottkamp should rethink his political situation and rebrand himself while he still has time.

It worked for Crist, didn't it?

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Gov. Crist's rejection of GOP has complicated life for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp 07/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 5:38pm]

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