Facing the most unpredictable election season in decades, Florida's political party leaders are frenetically crowning frontrunners 15 months before the 2010 primaries and, in some cases, firmly shoving potential rivals aside.
State GOP chairman Jim Greer publicly blessed Attorney General Bill McCollum's brand-new campaign for governor on Monday — even though another Republican officeholder, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, is considering a bid.
Bronson acknowledged that Greer is "putting him on the spot.''
Last week, Greer and national Republican leaders sought to close ranks around Gov. Charlie Crist's fledgling campaign for the U.S. Senate and squeeze out former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has been running for the Senate for months.
"I thought the idea is for real Republicans to vote on primary day, not for so-called party leaders to tell people who to vote for,'' said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party, one of several local clubs asking the state party to stay out of primaries.
Democratic leaders are also plotting ways to avoid divisive primary elections, which can sap donors and bloody candidates before the general election. But some Republicans say their party's unusually aggressive moves to clear the field could backfire by alienating supporters of the less-favored candidates.
"In the past, this is something done behind the scenes so it allows the other candidate to save face, make a decision on their own time, and bring their supporters with them,'' said Sharon Day, the Florida GOP's national committeewoman. "This year everything has gone into hyperspeed. This is an election cycle on steroids.''
Only one week has passed since Crist announced he would forgo another term as governor and run for the Senate, triggering Florida's biggest political shakeup in decades and leaving the Republican Party to defend its dominance of state government.
In a striking show of unity, the GOP's top leadership attended McCollum's Orlando news conference Monday launching his gubernatorial bid. Greer, the party chairman, noted that Bronson was not in attendance and asked for applause for his public service.
"I am confident that as we go into 2010, if the party is united, if we stand together and focus on the issues important to Floridians, the issues at the dinner table, we'll be successful,'' Greer said.
Greer said that he would ask the state party's executive committee to take the "unique and unusual'' step of endorsing McCollum before the primary. While McCollum is popular with Republican activists, some are questioning whether Greer is overstepping his bounds.
"I'm not going to allow them to dictate what I'm going to do,'' said Bronson, who served nearly seven years as a state senator before becoming agriculture commissioner in 2001. "I've been a bona fide elected official of this state and a lot of people want me to run.''
State Sen. Carey Baker, who is running for agriculture commissioner, said he has not been under pressure to pull out of the race even though a fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, raised more money for the seat in two months than he did in a year.
"I think the party, for the most part, should let primaries occur and let the best candidate win,'' Baker said. "A candidate that's gone through the primary process will be a stronger candidate. When you have a fringe candidate, I can understand the party taking a role, but when you're talking about respectable candidates, the party ought to make them take a pledge to not bash each other and run a positive race.''
State Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, is considering a bid for attorney general that could pit him against Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who was at the McCollum press conference.
"The rank and file really do want to have some options,'' Galvano said. "People are interested in making sure decisions are not made too quickly.''
The accelerated pace of the 2010 election has also been seen on the Democratic side. State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink's announcement last week that she would run for governor was immediately followed by glowing reviews from the Democratic party chairwoman and former Sen. Bob Graham. The party continued to line up behind Sink on Monday, when she received endorsements from all 10 Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation.
While no other prominent Democrat has come forward to challenge Sink, the deadline to qualify for the 2010 primary is still 13 months away.
Behind the scenes, Democratic party leaders have been quietly pressuring state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach to drop out of the U.S. Senate race and run for attorney general instead. Democratic U.S. Rep Kendrick Meek of Miami has raised more money for the Senate race and gotten more endorsements than Gelber.
For McCollum, one of the Republican party's longest-serving officeholders, Monday's news conference was aimed at dispelling any doubts about his mainstream appeal. His two previously unsuccessful statewide bids for the U.S. Senate — against Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson — have raised concerns among some Republicans about his strength as a candidate in a increasingly diverse and politically fickle state.
During his two decades in Congress, McCollum was an outspoken conservative waded into politically explosive battles like the Iran-Contra affair and the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
But his image as attorney general has been less partisan, and on Monday he struck a tone of outreach.
"The hallmark of a McCollum administration will be access and inclusion,'' he said. "This administration will be one that doesn't look at partisan labels.''
One statewide poll showed the potential matchup between McCollum and Sink as a dead heat. The race got under way weeks ago, when Sink began criticizing McCollum for awarding a $2.5 million no-bid contract to his former campaign consultant to produce and air ads on cybercrime. McCollum is prominently featured in the television spots.
The Republican Party has signaled that its main line of attack against Sink will be her longtime career in banking, an industry widely criticized for contributing to the current economic crisis.
Herald/Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Beth Reinhard can be reached at breinhard@MiamiHerald.com. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com