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Hillsborough GOP leaders under attack

In an internal battle that could shape the future of local GOP politics, two factions have begun campaigns to unseat the moderate Hillsborough Republican Party Executive Committee.

David Caton, state director of the staunchly conservative American Family Association, said Friday that he has encouraged about 50 politically conservative people to be placed on the Sept. 3 Republican ballot to represent precincts on the committee.

"We probably could have gotten 100, 200 more if we had had more time," said Caton, who made his political mark opposing local human rights ordinances. Caton said his supporters will strengthen the party's conservative agenda.

"They can change the entire bylaws on how the organization is run," said Caton.

He and his wife, Rachel, are on the ballot to represent Precinct 671 in Pebble Creek.

Caton's campaign coincides with efforts by another faction within the Republican Party to unseat longtime GOP leaders Marjorie and Bill Kincaid in an intense struggle to control local party politics.

Charlie Guy, a former Tampa mayoral candidate, is trying to unseat Bill Kincaid as the state committeeman. "It looks to be some sort of overthrow," said Guy, who was asked to participate by people in the business community and younger Republicans in search of a new direction.

Meanwhile, Carol Carter, a close friend of Hillsborough County party chairwoman Marjorie Kincaid, is trying to unseat Lorena Jaeb as a Republican state committee member. Jaeb is a major Republican contributor at the state and national level and a player in the local political turmoil.

"We're just trying to bring in new people," Mrs. Jaeb said. "I think change is good."

Hillsborough County has 314 precincts, and Republicans elect up to four representatives from each to set the philosophical tone for the local party.

Not all precinct posts are filled, and in fact, until this year, the committee positions, which are filled every four years, went largely unnoticed.

Republican leaders say grass-roots political involvement by hard-line factions could influence who runs for office and who gets support and financial backing. The local committees set the philosophical tone for local politics; they raise money, rally volunteers and support candidates.

"Florida has been almost uniquely immune from attack from people with a social issue agenda," said Tom Slade, Florida Republican Party chairman. "This is probably the beginning of people raising their voices in that regard."

But the political agenda behind the names on 67 contested precinct ballots may remain a mystery to most Republican voters: None of the candidates in those races is identified on the ballot beyond their names. In fact, the effect of the Sept. 3 election might not be fully known until December, when the Republicans meet for the first time to elect a local chairman.

The sudden interest in mostly invisible local positions is shaking up Republican insiders, who have had a lock on GOP politics. Marjorie Kincaid, the local GOP leader who is the target of much of the insider maneuverings, said a successful challenge would be the "death" of the local GOP.

"I honestly believe it's the end of the party. We're mainstream Republicans and believe we must have the big tent. We must have room for other people," she said. "If the party were taken over by the religious right, they're pretty dictatorial in their attitudes. It would be damaging for the party."

Kincaid and her husband, Bill, have operated the local Republican committee from a S Dale Mabry office in front of their South Tampa brickyard.

But the Kincaid dynasty came under fire after the couple wore plaid shirts in support of former presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander this year to the Presidency III political pep rally in Orlando. The gesture offended supporters of Phil Gramm and Pat Robertson, who felt the Kincaids had shut them out.

Hillsborough County is not the only place in Florida where these local party power battles are being played out. A conservative group calling itself Common Thread has flexed its political muscle, sponsoring 149 candidates for seats on Palm Beach County's Republican Executive Committee.

Fran Hancock, an incumbent state committeewoman being challenged by the group, called their campaign a "power grab" by ultra-conservatives.

"They want to get rid of all the liberals on the Republican Executive Committee," Hancock said.