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Haridopolos' U.S. Senate campaign may be stalling amid staff shakeup

High-level staff departures. A dropoff in fundraising. A stinging tea party loss in his own back yard.

The U.S. Senate campaign of Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos is showing all the signs of stalling.

The biggest setback for the Merritt Island Republican came late Thursday, as word trickled out that his friend and political adviser, Pat Bainter, would no longer work for his campaign. Also departing: his de facto campaign manager and spokesman, Tim Baker.

Haridopolos suggested in a written statement that the departures were no big deal. Haridopolos said he and Bainter remain "longtime" friends.

"As a proud member of the Florida GOP and a state senator, I know how important the 2012 elections are for state Senate campaigns and quite frankly Pat is the best at what he does," Haridopolos said, "and I know that his talent and expertise are needed to ensure that Republicans maintain and grow their majorities in the Florida Legislature."

But the man in charge of state Senate campaigns, Niceville Republican Don Gaetz, said he was unaware that Bainter would be his full-time consultant for the 2012 races.

Asked if he had spoken with Bainter about specifically working on any campaigns for the Senate Victory fund, Gaetz said: "No. I've had very general discussions with Pat. … I don't have a contract with him. I haven't come to any agreement with him about how much time he has available."

Gaetz, who is set to be state Senate president after the 2012 elections, praised Bainter for helping Senate Republicans seize a super majority of 28 members in 2010.

Bainter couldn't be reached for comment. Baker said in a written statement that the upcoming legislative session — set to gear up with committee meetings in two months — played a role. But he wouldn't say how.

"Pat and I agreed with Sen. Haridopolos some time ago that we needed to make some changes in the direction of the campaign," Baker wrote. "We feel we have laid the early groundwork for success and though Pat and I will be leaving the campaign, when we do, we will certainly be rooting for the Senator's continued success."

The departures from his campaign mirror the situation in his legislative office, where spokesman David Bishop left to work for the Florida lottery and chief of staff Steve MacNamara departed to take the same position with Gov. Rick Scott. Haridopolos' other close aide, Chris Finkbinder, is also set to leave for Scott's office.

Arlene DiBenigno , who is on unpaid leave from her $75,000-a-year job as the Senate minority outreach director, is now running the campaign.

One possible replacement for Bainter could be Public Concepts, a West Palm Beach consulting firm. Owner Randy Nielsen said he was unaware of the changes in Haridopolos' staff.

But, Nielsen said, Haridopolos has a trump card in the crowded Republican race: He has the most money, which can buy television ads that move the needle of public opinion.

How long Haridopolos can retain that edge is unclear. The upcoming session should provide him some opportunities to get more contributions from lobbyists and people seeking to do business with the state — his primary source of campaign income.

Haridopolos raised $2.5 million in the first quarter of the year. But his fundraising dropped sharply to about $900,000 over the last three months, according to his campaign. Former Sen. George LeMieux announced he raised the most: about $950,000.

Coming in third: former House Republican leader Adam Hasner, who reported $560,000 in contributions. Hasner's campaign, though, said much of that money came from small donors and conservatives — unlike the Washington and Tallahassee insiders fueling the campaigns of LeMieux and Haridopolos.

Hasner appears to be catching the most fire among conservative columnists, movement leaders and tea party groups. He scored a major coup by recently winning the Space Coast Tea Party straw poll, garnering 36 votes.

The straw poll vote is exceedingly small and unscientific. But it has some meaning in Republican circles. After all, Marco Rubio partly parlayed Republican straw poll wins into an unstoppable movement that swamped then-Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP race for Senate in 2010.

The Space Coast tea party group also voted overwhelmingly — 62 votes — that it would least likely want to see Haridopolos as senator.

The vote had a double dose of tough news for Haridopolos: Not only is he the most disliked candidate of the group, the Space Coast is the back yard for the Merritt Island Republican.

Haridopolos' U.S. Senate campaign may be stalling amid staff shakeup 07/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 15, 2011 8:58pm]
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