GOP Family Feud?

Two competitive races. Less than 14 weeks to go. And if you’re looking for one of the primary contests for governor to turn ugly, my bet’s on the Republicans. That guess is based on what I saw while moderating a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce forum that attracted all four of the major candidates — Republicans Tom Gallagher and Charlie Crist and Democrats Jim Davis and Rod Smith.

Right from the start, there was a little edge to the Republicans’ exchanges. When Attorney General Crist got momentarily confused by lights designed to warn candidates when their time was up, Gallagher broke in, “Red’s for stop, green’s for go, Charlie.”

Crist responded, “He’s helping me all along.” Gallagher, the state’s Chief Financial Officer, replied, “That’s because he needs it.”

The Democrats got a little mileage out of that exchange. State Senator Rod Smith quipped, “We are not going to debate what the green light means. We know it, and we are firmly standing behind it.”

Later, Gallagher went after Crist on a more substantive point; Crist’s assertion about Citizens Insurance, the state-run “insuror of last resort” for hurricanes.

“It’s been under a grand jury investigation … some of the people in it have,” said Crist.

Gallagher ignored a question about his plans for education to give an outraged response: “I want you to know what the Attorney General just said about Citizens being under grand jury investigation is absolutely untrue. He should know it’s untrue for two reasons. One, he’s part of the investigation; he’s the Attorney General. And number two, he was sent a letter by the chairman, which I got a copy of, explaining to him that it was never, and is not now, under any grand jury investigation.”

I said one of the members was,” Crist said.

Gallagher, looked around as if annoyed and said, “An ex-employee, and you did not say that, you said the company was. That’s the third time you’ve said that, that’s why I straightened you out”

“We’ll check the transcript,” Crist replied.

Well, the transcript shows Crist used loose phrasing, and that Gallagher called him on it — forcefully.

It happened again later, when Crist suggested that companies who write auto insurance in Florida ought to be required to offer coverage for storms, to bring more competition back into the marketplace. This time, Gallagher didn’t call him on it by name, but did say: “We’d have done that a long time ago if it was constitutional, and they shouldn’t use one-liners when they know it’s not constitutional.”

Gallagher’s aggressive approach, not altogether surprising, considering how far behind he appears to be (17-points down in Quinnipiac, 19-points behind ahead in the Mason-Dixon survey NBC 6 does). The Gallagher line: That Charlie Crist is not a true conservative, but rather an amiable centrist trying to “be all things to all people”. That’s the phrasing Gallagher’s communications director used when he sent me an e-mail entitled “Background”, discussing how some of Crist’s statements in debate were at odds with other things he’s said over the years.

On the Democratic side, Congressman Jim Davis has an even bigger lead over Smith. But neither Democrat is well-known statewide, and Smith has been making a lot of headway in the endorsement game (teachers unions in Miami-Dade and Broward, and Congressman Kendrick Meek among recent endorsers ). And Smith, who was a prosecutor before being elected to the State Senate, is good in debate. The political columnist from Davis’ hometown paper– the St. Pete Times– wrote “Smith repeatedly outshines Davis in joint appearances.”

So, for the Democratic race to tighten up. That could make things nastier on that side of the aisle — Democrats are always telling the old joke about the party forming its firing squads in a circle. For right now, though, it’s Republicans who fear that a bruising primary battle might cripple them for the general election war to come.


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