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Republicans turning local and state races into a referendum on Obama

Glance at the website for Republican Attorney General candidate Pam Bondi and you might think she's running for Congress. "Bondi vs. Pelosi,'' it declares, promising she will "stand up to Washington."

Likewise the Florida GOP TV ads almost sound like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink must be running for office in Washington instead of Tallahassee: footage of President Barack Obama urging people to do "whatever it takes" to elect Sink and a grave narrator noting that Sink supported Obama's health care overhaul and stimulus package.

And Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott rarely misses a chance to accuse Sink of supporting Obama's "big government" agenda.

With most signs pointing to big Republican gains in the fall midterm elections, Republican strategists are determined to turn even local and state races into referendums on Obama and the Democratic Party nationally. But one of the key questions is whether the Republican tide will rise to the level of a tsunami that not only changes control over the U.S. House and Senate, but sweeps Republicans into offices up and down the ticket in Florida and across the country.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 47 percent of Florida voters approved of Obama's performance and 47 percent disapproved, but Obama critics appear much more energized.

"He is a single radioactive boat anchor, to mix metaphors, for every Democrat candidate,'' said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. "Welcome to our party circa 2008 when every word out of the Democrats' mouth was George W. Bush."

University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith said well-funded, high-profile candidates like Sink may be able to avoid being pulled down by the national Democratic image, but it may be harder for lesser-known Democrats. He noted that nearly 400,000 more Republicans turned out in the Aug. 24 primary than Democrats, another ominous sign for down-ballot Democrats.

Keeping those Republicans fired up is a big reason to keep hammering on Obama and Washington.

"My opponent shares Obama's vision for the future, whereas I think the people of this state do not,'' Bondi said of her Democratic rival for attorney general, state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.

Noting that Republicans in Florida and across the country appear much more energized to turn out than Democrats, Republican consultant David Johnson of Tallahassee said, "To keep the intensity level strong you focus on those issues people are angry about and it's, 'Look, you've got the keys to the car and we don't like the way you're driving right now.' "

Democrats, though, say it's Republicans, not Democrats, who have been in the driver's seat in Florida and that will insulate Democrats running for state office.

"It's hard to be anti-incumbent in a state where Republicans are incumbents,'' said Democrat Gelber, noting that Bondi has featured Pelosi and Sarah Palin on her campaign website. "It's almost like she's creating an alternative election where it's Sarah Palin vs. Nancy Pelosi instead of talking about our visions."

Sink has done her own nationalizing of the race, accusing Scott of years ago hinting that he would support privatizing Medicare and Medicaid. Sink is also scoffing at the efforts to wrap Obama around her neck.

"Unfortunately, Rick Scott seems to think that running for governor is all about President Obama," Sink says in a new TV spot. "While Rick Scott is focused on Obama, I'm focused on creating jobs."

The chief financial officer has also kept her distance from the president, avoiding appearing with him on stage last month at a Miami fundraiser and this week declaring that she supports fully extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Obama wants to eliminate them for the wealthy but keep them for the middle class.

A Sept. 2-7 CNN/Time poll showed Sink leading Scott in the governor's race with 49 percent support to 42 percent support. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Florida does have a track record of ignoring partisan waves. In 2006, then-Republican Charlie Crist was elected governor amid a Democratic tide, and in 1994 Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles won re-election despite a huge Republican swell.

"He withstood the tide by making it a Florida race about Florida issues, and who you want at the helm of Florida regardless what you think about what's going on in Washington. That's the road map,'' said Democratic strategist Karl Koch of Tampa, who worked on Chiles' campaign. "People draw distinctions between federal and state offices, and you wouldn't see numbers like that CNN poll if they didn't."

The Democratic Governors Association is touting Florida's governor's race among its top prospects for picking off a Republican office, citing Sink's strength and Scott's track record leading a health care company that paid $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud.

"We couldn't have asked for a better candidate to run against,'' said Nathan Daschle, executive director of the DGA. "Rick Scott is the Madoff of Medicare. This is the guy whose company had the single largest settlement for Medicare and Medicaid fraud, $1.7 billion. . . . He pleaded the Fifth 75 times in depositions. I don't know how he can credibly say he wants to be the governor of this state."

Jen Baker, spokeswoman for the Scott campaign, scoffed and fired back with trusty ammunition — the O word.

"Alex Sink is a down-the-line Obama liberal and is advocating the same economically destructive policies in the state that already has led to record unemployment, a mortgage catastrophe and a huge statewide debt. She has been asleep at the wheel and has failed to lead."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Obama coming back to Florida

On Oct. 11, President Barack Obama will travel to Florida where he will attend a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Coral Gables.

Republicans turning local and state races into a referendum on Obama 09/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 12:46am]
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