Thursday, November 02, 2006

Republican Seems to Rally in Run for Seat Foley Quit

The New York Times
Republican Seems to Rally in Run for Seat Foley Quit

STUART, Fla., Nov. 1 — When Mark Foley resigned from Congress in disgrace five weeks ago, his Democratic challenger seemed headed for one of the easiest victories of the election season.

But in this least predictable of states, Joe Negron, the Republican choice to run as Mr. Foley’s replacement, is getting powerful help as the clock runs down, and now appears to be running almost neck and neck with Tim Mahoney, the Democrat.

With the National Republican Congressional Committee pouring nearly $2 million into the race and Gov. Jeb Bush campaigning at his side, Mr. Negron, a member of the Florida House, is hoping that even the misfortune of having Mr. Foley’s name on the ballot instead of his own — a consequence of the last-minute nature of the change — can be turned to his advantage. Republicans are posting signs urging voters to “Punch Foley for Joe,” a reminder that a vote in the Foley column is actually a vote for Mr. Negron.

“I know this district, and we are not going to allow ourselves to be defined by the disgraceful actions of our former congressman,” Mr. Negron said in an interview Wednesday. “I feel this tremendous momentum and energy among Republicans and conservative Democrats to keep this district in the Republican column.”

The numbers are on his side: 42 percent of voters here in the 16th Congressional District, which spans the state from Palm Beach to Charlotte County, are Republicans, and 36 percent Democrats. President Bush won here comfortably in 2000 and 2004, and most of the district (its boundaries were redrawn in 2002) has not sent a Democrat to Congress since the 1970’s.

Nationally, the chief political benefit of the Foley furor to Democrats was that it knocked Republicans off their tax and terrorism message in the crucial weeks after Congress adjourned at the end of September. It also ensnared several leading Republicans associated with Mr. Foley, while limiting Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s political drawing power.

But in a reflection of the race in Mr. Foley’s own district, his lewd e-mail messages to House pages seem to have had little lasting effect on Congressional races around the country. One Democratic strategist said the party had never expected more than a few races to be influenced significantly by Mr. Foley’s conduct.

Yet Mr. Mahoney has made a strong showing, especially given that he is a newcomer to politics who was virtually unknown before the Foley scandal drew spotlights to the race. A financier recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to run against Mr. Foley, he is more conservative than many of his party’s other newcomers, a self-described fundamentalist Christian who opposes same-sex marriage and tighter gun control. He has painted himself as an outsider who would act independently in Congress, and Mr. Negron, a state lawmaker since 2000, as an ineffective partisan.

“I find myself running against Dennis Hastert, Karl Rove and the Republican leadership in Washington,” Mr. Mahoney said after rallying campaign volunteers here. “They picked somebody to run for this seat that is publicly on record as supporting the failed policy of this administration for the last six years.”

A poll conducted in mid-October for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel showed Mr. Mahoney leading Mr. Negron by 48 percent to 41 percent, with 11 percent undecided. But this week two nonpartisan Congressional handicappers, Stuart Rothenberg and Charlie Cook, changed their assessments of the race from “leans Democrat” to “tossup.”

Mr. Rothenberg said voters seemed to have gotten past any confusion about the ballot, perhaps because news organizations had closely covered the race since Mr. Foley quit on Sept. 29. He also noted that Mr. Mahoney had begun attacking Mr. Negron by name in television advertisements — a sign, he said, that Mr. Mahoney is worried.

Mr. Mahoney said a new internal poll showed not only that he was still ahead, but that the margin was widening.

“What’s going to put me over the top,” he said, “is I’m getting virtually all the Democrats, the vast majority of independents and about 20 percent of the Republicans to vote for me.”

Mr. Mahoney entered the race about a year ago and says he has been traveling the vast district ever since. It includes a few wealthy Palm Beach County towns, the growing exurbs of Martin and St. Lucie Counties, rural interior regions of cattle and citrus farms, and Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte on the Gulf Coast. He owns a ranch in Highlands County, the backdrop for advertisements in which he shoots a gun, saddles a horse and barbecues slabs of meat.

Mr. Negron, a lawyer from Stuart, heads the powerful budget committee in the Florida House. He ran for attorney general this year, but was lagging and dropped out of the primary.

On Wednesday he issued a news release criticizing Mr. Mahoney for planning to attend a fund-raiser in New York with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, accusing him of taking his marching orders from her. Asked about the fund-raiser, Mr. Mahoney said he needed to “reach out to Democrats on a nationwide basis.”

But his spokeswoman, Jessica Santillo, said later that he had never planned to attend. He will participate by teleconference from Florida, she said.

Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.