Florida GOP: Discord Turns Party Red With Dismay

Tom Slade, a former Florida GOP chair, was getting about five calls a day last week from fellow Republicans saying the same thing: "Do something." The source of their alarm was the seemingly perilous condition of Sen. John McCain's campaign in the state. After leading for months in Florida, recent polls show him trailing Sen. Barack Obama by about five points. Much of the reversal, no doubt, stems from the economic crisis. But part of the blame lies with the McCain team itself, according to numerous Florida Republicans. Slade says he's hearing complaints that the campaign isn't coordinating volunteers well and its state director, Arlene DiBenigno, is ineffective. Others say its voter-turnout operation is lagging. (A Florida spokesman for McCain declined to respond to these assertions.) "The campaign is kind of on the ropes," says one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to give a candid assessment. McCain "could lose Florida now, and if he does, it's game over."

Tension has reportedly been mounting between the campaign and state Republicans. Several weeks ago, Florida GOP chair Jim Greer convened a private meeting with both camps to discuss the darkening outlook. News of the gathering, which apparently grew tense, leaked to media. Greer denies any discord, telling NEWSWEEK the point was to "make sure that the ship was on its right course." But a McCain loyalist who was present and also requested anonymity says Greer was just looking out for himself— either by appearing to save the day or "forewarning of a crisis so he couldn't be blamed."

Then there's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, whose enthusiasm for McCain, some say, has waned since he was passed over as a veep pick. He recently told reporters that "his foremost responsibility" is governing his state and that he was eager to help the Arizona senator "when I have time." Then about a week ago, he went to Disney World instead of a McCain rally. Crist tells NEWSWEEK that worries about his commitment are unfounded. "I couldn't be more enthusiastic," he says. "I love John McCain, and I'm doing all I can" to help him. Last Friday, he joined the candidate at rallies in Miami and Melbourne. Unfortunately, another distraction emerged that day: one of McCain's top fundraisers in the state, Harry Sargeant III, was accused of overcharging the government for fuel deliveries in Iraq by his contracting company. (A lawyer for Sargeant has denied the allegations.)

Not all Florida Republicans are despairing, though. The GOP chairs of some counties along the critical Interstate 4 corridor, including Pinellas, home to St. Petersburg, say their troops are fired up and have all the resources they need. The recent flurry of complaints were "a little bit of preliminary finger-pointing," says Brian Ballard, McCain's Florida finance chair. "I think everybody now gets the point that we've got to work together."

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