The suburbs north of Tampa have caught an early glimpse of the bruising political season to come.
In the cul-de-sacs and subdivisions largely west of Dale Mabry Highway, thousands of voters have received fliers in the mail questioning whether two-term state Rep. Kevin Ambler of Lutz is a "real Republican."
He's pictured alongside Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker Allan Bense, but Ambler's head is decidedly lower than the other two. "Will the real Republicans please stand up?" the pamphlet asks.
The mailing represents the start of what will be a wave of similar tactics in the 2006 campaign as well-financed groups known as 527s seek to punish their political enemies and reward their friends.
Ambler is being targeted by a group financed by Publix, Food Lion and other retailers because he voted against their interests last month. Ambler, a lawyer, supports the legal doctrine known as joint and several liability, which can force wealthy defendants in some lawsuits to pay more damages than their share of fault.
Repealing that doctrine is a priority of Florida businesses in the 2006 Legislature.
Under the guise of a group formed under Section 527 of the federal tax code, retailers have blanketed households in Ambler's district with placards that question his GOP credentials. So-called 527 groups can raise unlimited amounts of "soft money," which can be used to influence voters short of explicitly urging voters to vote for or against a candidate.
The Ambler flier reads, "Instead of helping you save money, Kevin Ambler voted with his trial lawyer friends."
Voters are asked to call a toll-free number, through which a woman's recorded voice makes it clear that the retailers are shopping for a more conservative GOP challenger to run against Ambler in the September primary.
"We believe he is out of step with his district," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation. "Hopefully there will be good alternative Republican candidates."
The lawsuit liability fight pits businesses against the equally potent trial bar lobby. It is a Republican priority and will be one of the most contentious business issues in the session that opens March 7.
Ambler saw the mailing as part of a heavy-handed effort to intimidate him.
"It's scary, because if the expectation is that we have to be in lockstep with every issue leadership decides, then we might as well send in our proxy and vote by proxy," he said.
The flier landed in the mailbox of Gretchen Feldman, 55, a Republican who lives in the Northdale subdivision and who supports placing limits on lawsuits.
"The flier would make you a little bit more aware of one side's opinion of the other," Feldman said.
After reading it over, she did a Google search of Ambler to learn about his views from reputable sources.
She had no knowledge of the group behind the anti-Ambler mailing, a group called Florida Mainstreet Merchants.
The 527 is registered with the IRS and with the state as an electioneering communication group. Through Dec. 31, state records show, the group spent more than $242,000.
Ambler likened the group to "shadowy snipers in the bushes," but its donations are easily found on the IRS and state elections Web sites.
Its biggest contributors include Publix, Food Lion, the fast food giant Yum! Brands, Sears and like-minded groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Federation political action committee and the Coalition to Save Florida Jobs, a group formed to oppose a 2004 ballot initiative that increased the minimum wage in Florida.
After two terms in the House, Ambler remained a political rarity in the Legislature: a vulnerable incumbent. Because of a carefully drawn political map in the last redistricting in 2002, most legislators hold safe seats, making them virtually immune from attacks by outside interest groups.
But Ambler has struggled to maintain his grip on House District 47.
The 44-year-old native Californian and U.S. Air Force veteran represents the north Hillsborough suburbs of Carrollwood, Northdale, Citrus Park and Lutz.
He had the closest re-election fight of any incumbent in the Legislature in 2004. His primary challenger, Bill Bunkley, tapped a deep reservoir of support at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz and came within 130 votes of winning.
In his first race in 2002, Ambler won the nomination by 83 votes in a three-way primary.
Entering this election, he has no opponent. Through Dec. 31, he raised $34,000, a modest sum for a two-term incumbent and not nearly enough to fend off a coordinated attack by a new District 47 candidate backed by the business lobby.
Ambler said his independent voice reflects the makeup of his moderate district. About 39 percent of the district's voters are registered Republican, 37 percent are Democrats and independents make up the remainder. But the district has a record of favoring Republican candidates.
Ambler strongly objected to the characterization that he's not a real Republican.
"I support lower taxes. I support less government," Ambler said. "I support more personal responsibility. I also believe in open and honest debate."
In a Jan. 25 debate before the House Judiciary Committee, Ambler spoke of the need for "fundamental fairness" and "balance" in providing citizens access to the courts. That committee considers virtually every major issue relating to the legal system.
Ambler was one of two Republicans who voted against the liability measure (House Bill 145), sponsored by Rep. Don Brown, R-DeFuniak Springs. The bill passed 7-5, a surprisingly close vote considering the GOP's dominance in the House, and is on track for a full floor vote in the first week of the session.
Recalling that day's debate, McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation said Ambler used "typical trial bar-type arguments" in urging a no vote.
House Speaker Bense, R-Panama City, is a leading ally of the retailers in the liability battle but said he did not condone their tactics to discredit Ambler.
"Let policy win, not intimidation tactics," Bense said.
He said he would probably seek a meeting with the retail lobbyist to deliver the message that "we don't need to do that."
Bense appointed Ambler to the Judiciary Committee, though he easily could have chosen a more reliably probusiness member. Asked why he picked Ambler, Bense said, "I love a fair fight."
The other Republican on the Judiciary Committee who voted against the liability bill was Rep. Jeff Kottkamp of Cape Coral, a lawyer who used to represent defendants but now is a plaintiffs' attorney. McAllister said Kottkamp was not targeted like Ambler because he has a consistent track record of voting for the retailers' agenda.
"It depends on the weight of the issue," McAllister said. "This issue has become heavier and heavier and heavier to us, so it carries more weight."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at
(850) 224-7263 or email@example.com.