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GOP's Sure Bets in Florida Now Appear in Question

October 14, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — In this conservative sanctuary in Florida's 16th Congressional District, the matrons of the Peace River Federated Republican Women's Forum gathered to hear why they should cast their votes for disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley.

"A vote for Mark Foley is a vote to elect Joe Negron," explained Negron, who took over the GOP spot on the ballot when Foley resigned after explicit messages he sent to teenage male pages were made public.

The Nov. 7 ballot had already been approved and some absentee forms mailed out when Foley resigned. Florida law forbids variation in the voting materials within any district, so Foley's name had to stay.

"People are saying you can't push the button next to Mark Foley's name. But I know that you're smarter than that," Negron said.

The 45-year-old attorney's assurances that the party can hang on to the congressional seat were comforting to a staunchly Republican crowd still reeling from the scandal that put its district up for grabs for the first time in a quarter-century.

But even here in Charlotte County on Florida's west coast, where voter turnout is regularly above 70% and heavily GOP, there are fears that the Foley scandal could discourage Republicans from going to the polls.

With President Bush's slumping approval ratings, dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the failure of the Republican-dominated Congress to tackle issues like Social Security and immigration, GOP candidates in several once-certain Florida races now appear to be in trouble.

A new squabble over the unchangeable ballot arose Friday, when the Florida Democratic Party filed a court motion to prevent "illegal electioneering" at polling places -- which is how it sees district election officials' plan to post notices telling voters that they should mark their ballots for Foley if they want to vote for Negron.

"Plain and simple, posting candidates' names is considered electioneering, and electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place is illegal," said Karen Thurman, state Democratic party chairwoman. "It's not the state's job to inform voters about the Republican candidate."

Negron retorted that the appeal for an injunction was Democratic challenger Tim Mahoney's admission of weakness. "He knows that the only way he can win this race is to run against Mark Foley," Negron said.

Before Foley resigned, Republicans held 18 of Florida's 25 U.S. House seats. Political analysts believe five of those are within Democratic reach -- potential pickups that could help break the Republicans' control of Congress.

"This is about a lot more than one errant person, and voters know that," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski said of the bounce in support for Democrats.

Just north of here, in the 13th District put into play by U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris when she decided to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, Democrat Christine Jennings leads Republican Vern Buchanan by 12 percentage points, according to a recent poll, despite the wealthy Buchanan's $3 million contribution from his own pocket.

Democratic State Sen. Ron Klein has been running neck-and-neck with Republican U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. for his 22nd District post. Brian Smoot, Klein's campaign manager, said he had no fresh polling data, but noted that the buzz on the stump trail along the Gold Coast of Palm Beach and Broward counties was lifting spirits.

"Certainly the man on the street, or the voter on the street, has been talking about the Foley scandal and disapproval of the handling of the war in Iraq," Smoot said, reporting a rise in campaign event turnout. The Republican leadership's failure to confront Foley before the revelations that forced his resignation "has crystallized in people's minds that this is not just a do-nothing Congress but a Congress afflicted with various scandals and more interested in political games than addressing important issues."

Democrat Phyllis Busansky's bid for the 9th District has gained strength in the last two weeks, say campaign workers, who are awaiting new poll results. The former local government leader is facing Gus Bilirakis, son of retiring U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis. "Anecdotally, the phones are ringing off the hook," says her campaign manager, Robert Becker.

Gus Bilirakis was quoted as telling reporters in Washington that his campaign wouldn't have a comment on the leadership's handling of the Foley affair "until after we win," a remark that voters found callous and evasive, and that had his handlers scrambling to contain the damage.

In the Orlando area's 8th District, Republican incumbent Ric Keller has been getting a spirited challenge from Democrat Charlie Stuart, although nonpartisan forecasts such as the Cook Political Report continue to rate that seat as likely Republican.

In staunch Republican territory, voters express revulsion and a sense of betrayal about Foley's behavior. But those still politically active tend to blame the man, not the party.

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