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Nancy Smith

Scandal Shmandel: Jennifer Carroll Could Be Mitt Romney's Secret Weapon

July 12, 2012 - 6:00pm

If Jennifer Carroll felt flustered by a former aide's accusation of office sexcapades, you couldn't tell by the polished performance she gave Thursday morning on CNN.

Florida's lieutenant governor -- in defense of Mitt Romney -- looked poised and radiant, sounded articulate and gracious.

So it struck me as a little premature to join this wake of buzzards in Tallahassee, licking their chops and circling Carroll as if she were this week's blue plate special.

Did you happen to see CNN's Solidad O'Brien on Thursday grill Carroll like a lamb chop?

In so many words, O'Brien wanted to know how the first African-American woman ever elected to the position of lieutenant governor in Florida, could be happy in the same party as Mitt Romney -- a candidate whose performance at the NAACP convention in Houston was booed for a full 15 seconds.

Did she think it wise, asked O'Brien, that Romney used the word "Obamacare" to describe the Affordable Health Care Act?

Carroll said, "That was what I liked in particular. He didn't try to go in and use different language to this audience than he does anywhere else. He wasn't pandering to the crowd. He stated his case as he always does, in the same language. It was admirable."

And so was Carroll. Admirable.

Somewhere Romney and his people were watching, cheering up a storm.

They had to be cheering on Wednesday, too, when Carroll went to bat for Romney after his speech to the NAACP. "President Obama's policies have made a bad situation worse for struggling African-American families," she said. "Fortunately, we can put a stop to these job-killing policies by electing Mitt Romney."

Jeff Bechdell, Florida communications director for "Mitt Romney for President," told Sunshine State News Thursday that the campaign considers Carroll a great asset. "In fact," he said, "she will be representing us at an event in Orange Park in Jacksonville on Saturday. We feel lucky to have her."

It's going to take more than a scandal to dislodge the lieutenant governor from this moment.

All of a sudden, at 53, Carrol finds herself in a national arena -- rare air for any lieutenant governor -- running like the wind in a high-stakes relay that could, just maybe, decide the race for the Republican candidate for president of the United States.

Floridians might have forgotten. But these savvy political moments are Carroll at her best. And that is why Romney avoided gaffe-prone Allen West this week, calling instead on Carroll.

Steve MacNamara, former chief of staff for Gov. Rick Scott, has been quoted as calling the lieutenant governor a "loose cannon." Maybe. But Carroll's cannon was solid enough to survive a long background of discipline, duty and service. After 20 years in the U.S. Navy, she retired in 1999 as a lieutenant commander. She then served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2003 until 2010.

Said one political consultant, "What you want campaigning out front for you is a team player. That's why Governor Scott chose her to be his No. 2 and that's why the Romneys want her now. Jennifer Carroll is going to snag a percentage of the African-American vote in Florida for the GOP. It won't be large, but even 2 or 3 percent in a tight race in this vital swing state could be all it takes."

What a rare opportunity for the lieutenant governor. Yet what bad timing that the attorney for Carletha Cole, a former aide who faces felony charges, would choose this week to disclose that Cole caught Carroll in "a compromising position" with another aide shortly before she was fired last year.

"It's a vile, vicious and ludicrous attack from a disgraced former employee," says Cindy Graves, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. Speaking for the FFRW, she called Carroll's accuser a "charlatan" and a supporter of President Barack Obama. "Jennifer Carroll has been our staunchest supporter in good times and bad," wrote Graves. "It is now up to us to support her."

No doubt the lieutenant governor will appreciate the support. But she's on a roll with Romney. If she misses a beat because of Carletha Cole, I'll be gobsmacked.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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