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GOP’s Sure Bets in Florida Now Appear in Question

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

“The Foley thing is very upsetting to everyone, but I can’t actually believe it will interfere” in voters’ deliberations, says Diane D’Andrea, president of the Peace River group that brought Negron to speak here. “I don’t think people will vote against Joe Negron because of what someone else did.”

But negative campaigning in the closely contested races is turning off voters, she added. “You hear a lot of people saying, ‘I get all this garbage in the mail, and I don’t want to vote for anybody.’ ”

Negron brushes off the Foley specter and has taken to the stump with gusto, crisscrossing his bizarrely contoured bicoastal district -- it stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean over migrant-tended farmland in the interior of the state -- with a solidly conservative platform. In his first week on the campaign trail, he addressed business, labor and agricultural groups in each of the eight counties that constitute the district.

“Before Mark Foley’s downfall, Tim Mahoney wasn’t considered a credible candidate,” Negron says of his opponent, insisting he will not let the Democrat “get a free ride.”

Three field managers from the Republican National Congressional Committee have come from Washington to direct Negron’s 11th-hour bid, and the effort has gotten $1 million in funding from federal party coffers.

Mahoney’s campaign did not return phone calls, but a new TV ad released Thursday cast the Democrat as an alternative to a Republican-dominated Congress rife with corruption, incompetence and scandal.

Florida Republican Party spokesman Jeff Sadosky dismisses Democrats’ claims to be drawing away disaffected Republicans and independent voters.

“Voters see this for exactly what it is: one guy with a sick problem that needs to get some help,” Sadosky said. “They’re not holding that against other Republican candidates.”

Prominent national party figures, including President Bush, are expected to stump for Negron and other Florida GOP candidates, and Negron has been touting his close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush, who enjoys approval ratings upward of 60% -- almost double those of his brother in the White House.

The Democrats also have been sending their biggest political guns south to shore up their hopefuls. Former presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York have all visited Florida in the past two weeks. Former President Clinton also has been raising money for Klein.

Republican voters predict the Foley fallout will subside by election day.

“We’ve moved past it by now,” says 64-year-old Darlene Queener, a retired bank employee who moved here from Wisconsin. “For the first few days, everyone talked about it. But it’s something that happened, and it’s going to be taken care of and we have to get beyond it because the goal is that the Republican Party keeps that seat.”

carol.williams@latimes.com


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