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Politics

GOP Optimism Growing as Election Approaches

September 13, 2014 - 6:00pm

Visiting Florida for the state Republican Party's annual fundraising dinner, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a warning that would have seemed laughable just a few months ago.

"This election is too important for the people of Florida, it is too important for our country, to take this for granted," Jindal told supporters of Gov. Rick Scott's re-election who gathered outside the Grand Floridian Resort before the 2014 Victory Dinner to greet Scott, Jindal and others who arrived by bus.

Six months ago, Scott was the underdog in his bid for a second term, with former Gov. Charlie Crist -- a Republican turned Democrat -- holding a solid lead in the polls. But recent surveys have shown the race tightening, and several polls have given Scott a small lead.

That has contributed to a new sense of optimism, Republicans say, that a Scott victory is within their grasp. Perhaps the overconfidence that Jindal alluded to isn't much of a danger, but state Sen. John Thrasher, the chairman of Scott's campaign, pointed to the packed ballroom at the Grand Floridian as a sign that Republicans are engaged.

"I'd say this is Jeb-esque," said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. "This is the kind of enthusiasm we had when Jeb Bush was governor. We never had it with Charlie. And now Rick Scott has reunited this party, and they are fired up and ready to go."

Republicans also say there are other indications that momentum is on their side. More Republicans than Democrats cast ballots in last month's primary elections, and Scott -- facing a couple of token opponents -- only fell about 6,000 votes short of matching the combined total votes for Crist and another Democratic candidate, former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich.

"There's so much enthusiasm," Scott said. "Look at the primary. Look at how many people came out to vote. We have traveled the state, we've had great crowds everywhere, because people care about their families."

For its part, the Crist campaign doesn't publicly dispute the idea of a close election. In an email Saturday to supporters, campaign manager Omar Khan tried to prod potential donors to give more.

"Almost every single poll has us within the margin of error -- whether we're up or down, this race will be too close to call until the sun goes down on Nov. 4th," Khan wrote.

Some of the energy on the Republican side could come from Crist himself, a loathed figure among Republicans for his moderate record while governor and his changing allegiances. Conservative activists had little love for Crist even before he bolted the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent in 2010, then announced two years later that he was a Democrat.

Jindal, though, shrugged off such talk.

"I think the real motivation is Rick's done such a great job," he told reporters. "Look at his track record."

Republicans spent Friday and Saturday touting their organizational and financial strength. Republican Party of Florida Chairwoman Leslie Dougher told the party's executive committee that the RPOF, Scott's campaign and a related committee have raised more than $95 million since January 2013.

Scott's campaign also touted the fact that its backers have knocked on 1 million doors so far this year and plan to knock on 1 million more.

Republicans say one of the decisive factors in the shift in the polls has been that Scott's narrative of the race is breaking through. In the GOP version of the election, Crist oversaw the state's crumbling economy -- something the former governor blames on the global financial meltdown -- while Scott has been at the helm as Florida added 600,000 new jobs.

Timing might have also played a role. Both sides expected a close election from the beginning. And Michael Guju, chairman of the Pinellas County party, said voters were beginning to tune into the race now that Labor Day, the traditional opening of the campaign season, had passed.

"It's almost a silly election," Guju said. "You have one governor, the current governor, who's done an absolutely stellar, exemplary job in bringing this state back from the brink of Charlie. On the other side, you have the person who took us to the precipice and, but for the actions of Gov. Rick Scott, we might have gone over the cliff."

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