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State GOP focuses on potential problems

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Florida Republicans talked loudly about all the reasons why they should score a decisive victory in 1994 elections.

Quietly, they also discussed ways they could blow it.

The potential problems begin at the top of the ticket (not counting U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, at this point a shoo-in for his party's nomination for a second term), where some of the party's most appealing candidates are going to butt heads for the gubernatorial nomination.

"It's a cautious blessing," said Tom Slade, the party's chairman. "It shows the strength of the party, to have at least four heavyweights for that race."

Jeb Bush, who has never held elective office but is well-connected and has statewide name recognition, and Secretary of State Jim Smith, veteran of five statewide races, already are in, as is frequent candidate Andy Martin.

Second-term Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and the party's first state Senate president since Reconstruction, Ander Crenshaw, also have talked about running. Seventh-term U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum also is considered a possibility.

Democratic incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles looks like an inviting target, with his poll ratings in near-steady decline since he took office after a 1990 landslide victory. And trends in recent elections and voter registration favor Republicans in the state, as strategists showed in great detail with graphs and colored maps at a June 5 policy and strategy session here.

However, with such an opportunity to fulfill ambitions on the line, a divisive primary looms. Slade already has talked to the likely candidates about keeping it clean and on the issues.

"There's the opportunity to slip down the slope of personalities," Slade acknowledged.

"We never won a governor's race until the Democrats misbehaved very badly," Slade told the likely candidates. "The only way we can lose is if we duplicate that process. . . . You must be ladies and gentlemen out there."

One Republican candidate, Smith, figured heavily in the Democratic misbehavior to which Slade referred. Smith lost the 1986 Democratic nomination to Steve Pajcic after a hard-hitting runoff that sent a reeling Pajcic into the general election against Bob Martinez.

Smith subsequently jumped to the Republicans.

Another problem faced by Republicans is that throwing four or five of their top candidates into the same race doesn't leave much in reserve for the cabinet races, all also contested in 1994. Slade is talking about "diversification" in seeking cabinet candidates who already aren't officeholders, such as a corporate executive for insurance commissioner, a top lawyer for attorney general, a veteran educator for education commissioner.

Rich Heffley, state GOP strategist, noted that once the field is known, probably after Labor Day, there also will be some promising Republicans plucked to serve as running mates.

He said the party hierarchy couldn't really control the field.

"It's pretty hard to tell somebody not to run for an office like governor," Heffley said.

However, he said the state party might use its influence for other races, such as trying to avoid pitting strong Republicans against each other in the party's bid to take control of the Legislature.

Republicans also said Chiles, a three-term U.S. senator who came out of retirement to enter the race late in 1990, might decide against seeking re-election. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Education Commissioner Betty Castor, former congressman Bill Nelson, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and former Orlando Mayor William Frederick would be possible replacements. Frederick might run whether Chiles does or not.

"None of those people scare us," Heffley insisted.

Republican registration gains have been strong and steady, and Democrats are projected to slip below 50 percent statewide within two years. But Robert Joffee, a veteran Florida political analyst and pollster, said a stronger trend is "decreasing party loyalty among all voters." There is a willingness to split tickets, cross party lines and support independents.

And while the strategy forum here focused on developing a partywide theme of spending controls and efficient, responsible government, Joffee said hanging over the Republicans are "lifestyle issues" such as abortion and gay rights that can easily split the party into factions.

"There's a lot that these guys can't agree on," Joffee said.