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"The fact that the front-runner in the Florida Republican primary is an unapologetic advocate for gay rights is and should be big news," Stemberger told the assembled conservatives.
Soon afterward, in an article titled "Conservatives Worried About Crist," Rep. Dennis Baxley, a member of Gallagher's "family policy council," reminded voters of Crist's gay-friendliness. "He's been very bold... in moving toward things like gay rights," he told the Lakeland Ledger.
In debates, Gallagher bore in on Crist, sensing a weakness. "What's the difference between a civil union and a same-sex marriage?" he asked Crist in one televised debate. But Crist parried deftly and with a smile. "I guess I have a little more of a 'live and let live' attitude than my opponent does" was one of his responses.
One political reporter who covered the Gallagher campaign told New Times that behind the scenes, Gallagher's staff was trying desperately to capitalize on the gay rumor without looking bigoted. Alberto Martinez, Gallagher's spokesman, held an off-the-record briefing with the media in the last week before the primary in which he stressed that Gallagher's sudden emphasis on gay issues was not to be construed as "gay bashing."
With only days to go before the vote, Gallagher demanded that Crist reject the endorsement of the gay weekly newspaper Watermark Online, which serves Central Florida. Tom Dyer, publisher of Watermark, had written a candidate guide for the paper's August 24 issue that called Crist a "hands-down favorite" for gay voters. "While he unsurprisingly dislikes gay marriage, Crist supports civil unions for same-sex couples," Dyer wrote. "He's charming, decisive and moderate."
"You won't see me get that endorsement," Gallagher told reporters. But Crist managed once again to make Gallagher look like a bully: "I don't reject support," he said. "I'm in the business of trying to get support. You know, I'm not trying to be discriminating."
By the eve of the primary, the gay mudslinging was so obvious that Fox News commentator Carl Cameron described it to his television audience the night before the polls opened, saying: "Crist complains that a whisper campaign that he's gay is being orchestrated by the Gallagher camp. He tries to ignore it, focusing on other issues."
Before the campaign, even Crist's friends wondered if questions about his sexual orientation would sink him. "Conventional wisdom would have said that Charlie would have lost," an acquaintance who attended his fraternity told New Times.
Instead, Gallagher's thinly veiled attacks completely backfired. On September 5, Crist picked up moderate Republicans all over the state, burying Gallagher and his innuendoes under a landslide victory.
Political strategists agree that Crist triumphed over the rumor campaign for a couple of reasons. It didn't hurt, for example, that there was an 11th-hour revelation that Crist had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child in 1988. Rebecca O'Dell Townsend, a St. Petersburg lawyer, told reporters the week before the primary that after she and Crist spent the night together at his St. Petersburg apartment two decades ago, she became pregnant.
Crist denied that he was the father, saying in one court document that although he'd gone home with Townsend, he had "never consummated the act necessary for parenthood."
The story, a last-ditch effort to smear Crist from the Gallagher camp, disappeared nearly as quickly as it surfaced, but not before it cast doubt on the rumors of Crist's homosexuality and made the Gallagher supporters look petty and malicious.
But there was another, more important, reason that Gallagher's innuendo campaign didn't work: Gallagher was hardly the right person to be casting doubts about another man's family values.
With a moderate political record and a long reputation as a Tallahassee ladies' man, Gallagher was already having a hard time fitting the image of a conservative champion when uncomfortable information from his divorce records became public this past June. In an embarrassing emergency conference call with reporters, Gallagher admitted that he had smoked marijuana and had once had a long-term affair with a legislative aide while he was a state representative. Lamely, he claimed that his born-again Christian faith made his transgressions a thing of the past. But his conversion to right-wing conservatism didn't fool anybody, least of all the church-goers and gay-bashers his campaign sought out.
"In this campaign, he became a little uncharacteristically culturally conservative," says Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County party chairman. "I went to one of my Christian Right friends during the primary and asked him about Tom Gallagher's positions, which had become quite what I call Christian Right. And this fellow said to me, 'We don't believe them. '"
One Tallahassee political insider put it plainly: "I think that running a campaign against Charlie Crist and resorting to innuendo about a rumor that is oft-repeated but never confirmed has a kind of desperation to it, a very thin veneer to it that is easily seen. Here's the irony: Anybody who tries to beat up Charlie Crist or anybody else with the mantle of family values, it's going to backlash against them, as it did with Tom Gallagher. It backfired on Tom Gallagher to even allude to it."
Some of Gallagher's supporters think he failed not because he was too hard on Crist but because he wasn't hard enough. Elaine Miceli-Vasquez, a Broward County Republican who managed Broward County's Gallagher campaign, says many frustrated Gallagher supporters wished he had said more. But Miceli-Vasquez, like most Gallagher supporters, won't tell a reporter exactly what their candidate should have said more about.