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Adam Putnam looks like Florida's next governor, but lifelong politician tag will dog him

Adam Putnam, the fellow who seems most likely to become Florida's next governor, will stand on the steps of the old Polk County Courthouse in Bartow on Wednesday to kick off his campaign and lay out his vision.

Putnam, 42, can give a rip-roaring speech. He is funny, smart, down to earth.

He is a fifth-generation son of Florida, who in sharp contrast to term-limited Gov. Rick Scott, does not need to learn what it's like to canoe through clear Florida springs, sit in traffic for an hour on the I-4 corridor or order from a cafecito counter in Miami.

Still. … Yawn.

The two-term Republican agriculture commissioner, five-term U.S. House member and two-term state House member may be the best-qualified candidate for governor in Florida history. Trouble is, that's also what they said about Hillary Clinton, who struggled to generate energy and passion as a presidential candidate.

"This is kind of like a long-term coming-out party. We all knew this was coming, so I think he zapped a little bit of his enthusiasm because it was so transparent what his long-term plans were," said Tom Gaitens, a commodities trader and conservative activist in Hillsborough County who is a fan of Putnam's.

Putnam was 21 when he ran his first campaign for the Florida Legislature — that 1996 race was the last time he faced a viable GOP primary challenger — and even then people talked him up as a future governor.

"Occasionally, I see a politician who has a special quality, and Adam does. He has the potential to be governor or U.S. senator some day," Polk County political strategist Charles E. Canady told the Ledger in Lakeland in 1996, four years before his son, then-U.S. Rep. Charles T. Canady, more or less handed off his congressional seat to the red-haired wunderkind from Bartow.

And now we have reached the seemingly inevitable start of his campaign for governor.

"Adam has prepared for this for a long time," said former Republican state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, a longtime friend of Putnam's now registered without party affiliation. "Over his 20 years in various offices, he has played it very smart politically, not ruffled many feathers, made a lot of friends along the way. He's very likable, very smart. He's got a huge support system."

But what if after all this painstaking preparation, Putnam finds himself running at the worst possible time for a career politician?

Donald Trump won the presidency thanks to voters' disgust with the status quo and establishment politicians, and on the eve of his campaign kickoff Putnam looks a lot more like Jeb Bush than Trump. He already has a campaign war chest of more than $7 million to help scare off primary rivals.

"I'm not interested in whose turn it is to be governor, I'd rather see someone who's going to make a difference and not be the status quo," said Barbara Haselden, an insurance agency owner and conservative activist in Pinellas. "These people who just go from one office to the next, I think they live in an echo chamber and lose touch with the people on the street — no fresh ideas, no boldness, no willingness to take chances."

We should soon see how cautiously Putnam campaigns for governor. Typically, Putnam is confident and unscripted — a favorite of reporters who appreciate a plugged-in straight shooter. He has lowered his profile and accessibility over the past year, however, trying to balance his obvious distaste for Trump with a desire not to criticize his party nominee or antagonize Trump's energized supporters. He declined to speak with the Tampa Bay Times for this story.

A play-it-safe campaign might be just the thing to help rivals in both parties paint him as another bland, lifelong politician.

"If FL voters are clamoring for anything, it is someone who has held elective office for every day of their life since they were 22 years old," state Rep. Chris Latvala scoffed on Twitter on Monday after Putnam filed official campaign papers with the secretary of state.

His father, state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, is flirting with running for the GOP nomination, describing Putnam earlier this year as a "guy who's been in elected office since he was 21 years old and has never written a paycheck."

Trial lawyer John Morgan never mentioned Putnam by name when he spoke recently to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, mocking candidates who have been dreaming of running for governor "since they ran for president of 4H." Putnam was president of Florida's 4-H Council.

It's possible Putnam could wind up winning the nomination without a serious challenge. Along with Latvala, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes is considering running but says he won't make an announcement for a year, which could be too late to mount a serious challenge against such a well-funded front-runner. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast also could campaign to the right of Putnam and is said to be considering a run.

Republican Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a longtime friend of Corcoran's who served with Putnam in the Florida House, suggested the agriculture commissioner will face questions about his unflinching allegiance to some major donors, which include the sugar and utility industries.

"Adam's a good guy, but like some other politicians, he's bought and paid for by the special interests, especially the utility industry," Fasano said. "That concerns me."

A 10-year voting record in Congress, where Putnam rose to be the third-highest-ranking Republican, is sure to provide plenty of ammunition to Putnam's rivals.

Gaitens says many conservatives were especially furious over Putnam voting for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the so-called Wall Street bailout, in 2008. But he senses that the hostility toward Putnam among grass roots conservatives is far less ingrained than it was with Bush when his presidential campaign began.

"He was not in high favor by the movement by and large as he was leaving Congress, but we understand that Adam has been a longtime, good conservative," Gaitens said.

Putnam is likable, well funded and well organized. Not so long ago, that would be a recipe for success, not just in the GOP primary, but the general election in a nonpresidential year when Democratic turnout tends to be weak.

But nothing is normal about today's election climate, and Putnam is shrewd enough to know he can take nothing for granted.

Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.

Adam Putnam looks like Florida's next governor, but lifelong politician tag will dog him 05/05/17 [Last modified: Friday, May 5, 2017 1:08pm]
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