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Florida's GOP chief faces heat from his own party's faithful

Republicans should have the wind at their backs this election season with President Barack Obama's poll numbers dropping and independents turning away from Democrats.

But many Florida Republicans increasingly see a significant obstacle to success: Jim Greer, the most controversial and polarizing Florida GOP chairman in decades. He has become a lightning rod for infighting, distraction and distrust, and gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum could be a casualty.

Greer and his main benefactor, Gov. Charlie Crist, are fending off a near-mutiny among party activists, elected officials and fundraisers fed up with what they see as inept political operations, dirty campaign tactics, unfair treatment of candidates like U.S. Senate hopeful Marco Rubio, dubious fundraising practices and lavish spending.

"I sure wish Charlie Crist would pull the trigger and put in someone who is strong and competent,'' said Al Hoffman, a top GOP fundraiser from Fort Myers who thinks Greer has spent money too freely on perks like limos and private planes. "The toughest job of a CEO is to fire somebody who's close to you when he's not performing. It's the toughest job, but he has to do it. Otherwise, we'll be behind the eight ball."

The Florida GOP has generated plenty of headlines lately:

•For a senior employee creating a fake Twitter account to destroy the reputation of a local party chairman critical of Greer;

• For lavish spending practices that made donors skittish and forced Greer to publicly cut up his own American Express card;

• For trying to invoke an obscure rule to snuff out Rubio's Senate campaign early on;

• For a political operative working out of state party headquarters tied to an anonymous Web site trashing Rubio.

The anti-Greer uprising came to a head this week when a majority of the state party's executive board called for an "emergency closed meeting" with Greer to discuss the numerous recent "extremely damaging" reports about the party. Greer responded by arranging a conference call where he was said to be contrite and regretful for having tried to push aside Rubio and line up his state party solidly behind Crist for the Senate.

"He was very apologetic and said he faced a lot of difficult decisions over the last several months," said Broward State Committeeman Ed Kennedy, who expects a special meeting of the board to be called shortly. "His whole tenor was that he thought he was doing the right thing. He indicated that he was very surprised with the reactions he was getting around the state and now he wants to make amends."

Greer issued a statement saying he appreciated the positive discussion Thursday and that most party leaders are focused on winning in 2010 "and not participating in the divisiveness that a small minority wishes to promote."

Party activists say the likelihood of ousting Greer is slim, particularly with Crist expressing "extremely high" confidence in the chairman.

"I know he is a tireless worker," Crist said Friday. "He's dedicated to trying to help the party do better and broaden the appeal to minorities. I just think he's done a great job."

But that's hardly a common view, and the unrest is especially awkward for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum.

Greer is Crist's hand-picked chairman and is widely seen as focusing most of his attention on Crist's Senate race. Crist has been vacuuming up millions of dollars for his Senate campaign rather than the state party that will help try to elect McCollum as governor.

"I think it's already having an impact on Bill McCollum and the governor's race, because it's becoming impossible to raise money with all these things hanging over your head,'' National Committeewoman Sharon Day said of the assorted controversies under Greer's leadership. "He's traveling to every fundraiser with the governor and traveling all over the country. … He should be here at the helm of the party getting our candidates elected."

A party spokeswoman said Greer spends his own money when traveling with Crist to Senate fundraisers across the country.

State Sen. Paula Dockery is making the state GOP leadership an issue in her campaign for governor — essentially lumping McCollum, Greer and Crist together as she laments a series of recent scandals involving top GOP money-raisers.

"Too many people have come to believe that our party— including the leadership of the Republican Party of Florida — is too focused on big-money interests and who gets what share of the goodies,'' Dockery said Tuesday. "I hate to admit this, but I've come to believe they're right."

McCollum is keeping his distance from Greer and assuring donors that a separate bank account has been set up for the state campaigns and that any spending will require signatures from both Greer and former state House Speaker Allan Bense.

"There's a longstanding tradition that the governor chooses the party chairman and that's who he chose,'' McCollum said when asked if he has confidence in Greer. "I hear from many, many people about concerns they have within the party."

Allies of Greer dismiss the critics as Rubio supporters or as a relatively small group of ardent conservatives who resent Greer's efforts to broaden the party's appeal with moderates and Hispanics.

"There is an outside fringe group that believes the party is ripe for taking over, and they're trying to do their damage,'' said Pinellas state Committeewoman Nancy Riley.

Paul Senft, Republican National Committeeman from Polk County, said internal bickering is nothing new, but the advent of the Internet has allowed it to seem broader than it really is.

"I've been around long enough, over 20 years, that I've seen five different chairmen and Jim Greer has done as good a job as any of them — in fact better in some contemporary areas,'' Senft said.

But it's not only Rubio backers concerned about their party leadership.

"As someone who has been associated with the Republican party of Florida for almost 35 years, I am disturbed by what I hear and read,'' said Republican former state Sen. Jack Latvala, a Pinellas County Crist supporter running again for the Florida Senate in 2010. "As a candidate to be on the ballot next year, I don't see any of this helping my campaign."

Palm Beach County Chairman Sid Dinerstein said much of Greer's challenge has been his loyalty to Crist above all else: "He got caught in a place of being both Charlie Crist's campaign chairman and chairman of the (party). Nobody can do both jobs, and he's got to pick. … This is all happening because the governor didn't run for re-election, and he should have."

Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Florida's GOP chief faces heat from his own party's faithful 11/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 8:45am]

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