TREASURE ISLAND — The crowd was big and the bar was busy at the Club at Treasure Island on Tuesday night, but the people assembled in blue-and-red "Rice for Sheriff" shirts were short on mirth. Amid the boozy miasma on the elegant yacht club's third floor, there were plenty of loud voices, but little laughter.
About 8:20 p.m., just 80 minutes after polls had closed across Pinellas County, the man the crowd had come to support abruptly got up and gave a short speech.
"We're gonna lose," began Everett Rice, admitting defeat for the first time in the six elections in which he had participated during a public service career spanning decades.
It was an outcome few would have predicted earlier this year, when polls showed Rice with a lead of 40 points over Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, his opponent in the Republican primary for sheriff. With Rice's heavy-duty funding and name recognition built on four successful terms as sheriff between 1988 and 2004, political observers thought for much of the campaign that the nomination was his to lose.
Lose he did. When all the votes were counted Tuesday night, Gualtieri had captured 57 percent of the vote, beating Rice by a margin of 14 percentage points.
"I would say that it's one of the biggest political comebacks I've seen," said state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater who served as a political consultant on Gualtieri's campaign.
Which raises the question: What drove the comeback?
Gualtieri, the former chief deputy of the Sheriff's Office, was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in November to finish the term of retired Sheriff Jim Coats, a development that gave him the benefits of incumbency. He adeptly handled a scandal this year in his agency's narcotics division that threatened to derail his campaign, decisively meting out discipline to detectives accused of lying and trespassing during drug investigations.
Gualtieri stayed on message throughout a grueling 15-month campaign, pitching himself as the only candidate with experience running the county's largest law enforcement agency on the tight budgets of bad economic times.
But observers say Rice's missteps had as much or more to do with Tuesday's voting results.
Despite his early front-runner status, Rice made the sort of risky campaign gambits that more often characterize underdog candidates. He aligned himself with the party's extreme right wing on issues such as gun rights, immigration and the role of the federal government in local law enforcement.
These appeals to the GOP fringe, in themselves, might not have been fatal, experts say. But they could have led to another liability that was: concerns in voters' minds about the sincerity and credibility of Rice, who during his 16 years as sheriff and two years in the state Legislature always positioned himself as a moderate.
"I think he committed a cardinal mistake of a political candidate, and that was to confuse voters about who the real Everett Rice was," said Darryl Paulson, a retired government professor from the University of South Florida. "They don't know what he's going to do when he shows up for work, so to speak. They don't know if they're going to get the moderate Everett Rice of the 1980s or if they're going to get the tea party Everett Rice."
Such worries were probably not relieved by his later efforts to equivocate.
Rice told the National Rifle Association in a candidate survey that he supports the open carrying of firearms in Florida by those who already have concealed-weapon licenses. Legalization of "open carry" is a holy grail of the state's pro-gun lobby. Asked about the survey, Rice claimed that his response was "qualified," and that he would merely think about supporting an open-carry bill if he believed gun owners were being harassed by police.
After he boasted on the campaign trail about his endorsement by Richard Mack — an antigovernment activist allied with Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a champion of the "birther" conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen — the Tampa Bay Times asked Rice whether he believes the president was born in Hawaii, as his birth certificate indicates.
"I don't know," Rice said. Pressed on the topic at debates and in interviews over the summer, he maintained his position was that he could not personally authenticate the president's birth certificate, which Obama has posted on the White House website to dispel persistent muttering among the conspiracy-minded.
This effort to ride the fence might have succeeded in alienating those it was intended to appease, according to Chris Ingram, a Republican political consultant and commentator in Tampa.
"His duck-and-dodge attempts to explain that in a way that was both seemingly satisfactory to the masses, as well as appealing to the wing-nuts — it's a pretty lame dodge," Ingram said. "It's like me saying, 'Well, I can't prove that NASA landed a man on the moon.' I mean, come on."
Rice said Wednesday that negative advertising by the Gualtieri campaign and the Times' reporting on his overtures to the far right were the prime factors in voters' decision to turn away from him. "Your newspaper cast me as some kind of right-wing nut. That's what changed it," he said.
But the palatability of tea party ideas among Pinellas County Republicans may have been less important to the race's outcome than the man purveying them, Ingram said.
"It might have been different if he were up in the Panhandle, or in north-central Florida," Ingram said. "But I think it was equally a matter of crazy positions, and the question of — whether or not they're crazy positions — why is it such a flip-flop?"
Times photojournalist Lara Cerri contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.