2 Issues Straining GOP Grip in Florida

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s decisive victory in Florida last year seemed to cement Republican dominance in an important battleground state that once symbolized an evenly divided nation.

But with the GOP base polarized over the Terri Schiavo case and the public skeptical of Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security, two issues with explosive relevance in Florida are stirring up confusing political crosscurrents for Republicans preparing to face the voters there next year.

On both fronts, President Bush and his brother Gov. Jeb Bush are promoting positions that put fellow Republicans on the spot, just before important campaigns that will determine the governor’s successor and the fate of Florida’s lone Democrat holding statewide office, Sen. Bill Nelson.


Polls show the public overwhelmingly opposed to intervention by Congress and President Bush in the case of Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose family has been bitterly split over the decision to remove her feeding tube. But the religious conservatives who pressed hard for politicians in Tallahassee and Washington to act to have the the tube reinserted could play a pivotal role in the races for governor and Senate.

At the same time, public opposition has been mounting against the president’s plan to let younger workers divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. The president’s proposal is particularly unpopular among seniors, and so candidates in the senior-rich state are especially vulnerable to the charge that such a change could endanger benefits.

“It may be that we tried to load the wagon with too many watermelons,” said Tom Slade, Florida’s former Republican Party chairman. “There’s not ... a lot of good news on our side of the aisle at this minute.”

The conflicting dynamics in Florida are crucial for national Republicans as they seek to enhance their power in Washington and state capitals across the country.

In 2004, President Bush’s campaign stunned Democrats by extending the 537-vote margin of victory in Florida of four years earlier into a margin of more than 300,000. Republicans drew on massive turnout in conservative northern and central parts of the state that outweighed the liberal strongholds in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to the south.

GOP strategists are hoping to build on those gains next year in the fourth-largest state by ousting Nelson -- a goal underscored by a memo, ascribed to the Senate leadership, that surfaced amid the Schiavo debate in Congress extolling the political advantages of using the Schiavo case to rally the conservative base against the Democratic senator.


With term limits forcing Gov. Bush to leave office in January 2007, another high-stakes campaign has begun, with crowded primary fields. Strategists in both parties expect the Schiavo controversy and Social Security to be potent and unpredictable issues. Those issues could also be important in several potentially competitive congressional races in districts now held by Republicans E. Clay Shaw Jr., Ginny Brown-Waite and Katherine Harris.

Underscoring the prominence of these issues for both parties, Nelson plans to campaign aggressively in his opposition to the Bush Social Security plan.

But on Schiavo, Nelson ultimately voted with the GOP congressional leadership to give the ailing woman’s parents new recourse to ask federal courts to order her feeding tube reconnected. That vote seemingly deflated the Republicans’ hope of galvanizing conservatives against him.

“This has all made a very smooth-running Republican operation kind of take a couple of detours, with respect to the risks on Schiavo and people having different views on Social Security,” said Cory Tilley, a Florida Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Bush.

Still, Tilley cautioned: “It’s too early to tell the full impact. The organization the Republican Party has in Florida compared to the Democrat Party is so well put together, I don’t think these issues will turn the tables.”

Both issues could also affect the political future of Gov. Bush, who won praise from many religious conservatives when he embraced the cause of Schiavo’s parents two years ago. Though the parents have sought measures to keep their daughter alive, Schiavo’s husband, Michael, has won court approval to disconnect the feeding tube.

The governor has said he will not run for president in 2008, but the Schiavo case has renewed a focus on his intentions. Despite complaints in recent days from a few conservative activists that he did not go far enough to keep Schiavo alive, state GOP strategists said Gov. Bush had boosted his profile with the national party base above that of other 2008 contenders. Moreover, they said, criticism from the right could lead party moderates to conclude that his position was not as extreme as Democrats have charged.

Still, some Republicans are grasping to find the right approach to issues that, at least for now, spur emotional responses among different key voting blocs.

No situation illustrates the situation better than that of Republican Rep. Brown-Waite, whose district north of the Tampa Bay area is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.

As the House member who represents more Social Security beneficiaries than any other in the country, Brown-Waite has been studiously careful to distance herself from Bush’s proposed overhaul of the retirement program -- even drafting legislation that would outlaw the kinds of benefit cuts that critics charge could result from the Bush plan.

On the Schiavo legislation, she broke from her party ranks last week to vote against intervening in the case. In a floor speech, she quoted her daughter as saying that she would want to die if she were in Schiavo’s situation.

“No, Mom, if you really loved me, you would want me to have rest and meet the Lord,” her daughter said, according to the congresswoman..

Rep. Shaw, a moderate Republican whose politics reflect his senior-heavy South Florida district, faces similar pressures. He did not return to Washington for the Schiavo vote, and on Social Security he has proposed an alternative to Bush’s plan that would create private accounts as an add-on to the Social Security system, a compromise that has been embraced by Democrats.

Hoping to exploit the pressure on Shaw, the Democratic state senator planning to challenge him next year issued a news release last week blasting the congressman for skipping the Schiavo vote.

“He had two days’ notice to get up there, and he couldn’t do it,” said state Sen. Ron Klein, the Democrat planning to challenge Shaw, who cast one of the crucial legislative votes last week in Tallahassee to block a last-ditch effort by Schiavo’s parents. “I made my choice clear on this. You have a responsibility to register your vote.”

Like Klein, some Democrats believe they will get a political boost from the Schiavo case and the Social Security battle.

While the Republican contenders for governor have kept low profiles on the Schiavo case, for example, the Democratic contenders have uniformly condemned intervention by Gov. Bush, Congress and the president.

Scott Maddox, the state Democratic Party chairman and a likely candidate for governor next year, said Republicans were “overplaying their hand in both cases” and Democrats would be sure to capitalize on that.

GOP strategists believe the Schiavo case could be most explosive in their party’s gubernatorial primary, expected to pit Florida’s elected chief financial officer, Tom Gallagher, a moderate Republican, against Atty. Gen. Charlie Crist, who is more popular among conservatives.

Gallagher, who has a history of supporting abortion rights, spoke at a “Save Terri” rally this month, apparently trying to shore up his conservative credentials in anticipation of a primary that could hinge on issues of life. “Our creator has given us life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and only he has the power to take it away,” Gallagher said, according to an Associated Press report.

Crist has steered clear of the issue.

“The people that are activists in the evangelical community, they’re going to vote for the most conservative candidate,” said David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist. “This isn’t going to be as red-hot then as it is now, but the question is, will it be a mobilizer for those who feel strongly and normally don’t vote in primaries?”

On both issues, strategists said, the politics for Republicans depend on future events.

On Social Security, the president might still convince seniors that their benefits will not be affected by his plan or that they should support his proposal for other reasons.

Or, he may compromise on the private accounts that have so riled opponents.

On Schiavo, it is not clear whether activists will be able to harness today’s emotions for an election more than a year away.

“There’s no turbulence in the Republican base,” said John Thrasher, former Republican state House speaker and a close ally of both Bushes.

“When the time comes back for us to be together, when it comes time for us to elect a governor and a United States senator, I promise you we’ll be behind our nominees, and we’ll win. I’m willing to go to the bank on that.”