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Cliff Stearns may be hurt by the company he keeps

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, has worked hard to cultivate an image of the average businessman who goes to Washington to represent the average resident of his sprawling 6th Congressional District. That approach worked well in 1988 as he upset former Florida House Speaker Jon Mills. After last week, one might wonder what Stearns considers average.

The self-proclaimed "citizen congressman," gearing up for a possible challenge this fall, had a fund-raising dinner Friday night in Ocala, but it's doubtful very many "average" citizens got through the door at the Hilton Hotel. Dinner cost $200 a plate.

Before dinner, Stearns was a guest at a private home in Ocala, where the ante was $100. At both locations, there were an estimated 150 supporters, anxious to help the hotel owner and restaurateur pad a war chest that exceeds $200,000 even though there is no announced opposition.

Money matters aside, Stearns' image as an affable, ordinary guy suffered more tarnish by the company he kept at this function. On hand to field the questions from the press was none other than the House minority whip, Newt Gingrich. The right-wing Republican from Georgia, best known for his dirty politics and negative campaigning, sang praise for Stearns while criticizing the "American bureaucratic welfare state" and anybody who would suggest military spending cuts.

Any question that Gingrich disliked was a "typical liberal question." And when a reporter tried to break Gingrich's grip of the session to get Stearns to respond to a question about the effect of a $200-a-plate dinner on his image and characterizations in 1988 of Jon Mills as a "professional politician," Gingrich abruptly said, "Thank you. That'll be all."

To Stearns' credit, he did answer the question, noting his many town meetings around the district.

That Stearns would allow the likes of Gingrich to spread his feathers over him should cause concern among the many moderate Republicans who have worked alongside the first-term congressman.

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