TAMPA -- Retiring Florida U.S. Senator George LeMieux probably won a few local Republican hearts and minds Friday, and maybe some useful friends if he decides to run for the Senate on his own in 2012.
LeMieux laid his conservative bona fides before more than 200 who braved a rainy Friday night -- Tropical Storm Bonnie lurking just to the west of here -- to attend the Hillsborough County Republican Party's Issues and Ideas dinner. He has some fences to mend.
LeMieux, who was Governor Charlie Crist's chief of staff, campaign chairman, confidant, and friend (not to mention a mere pup at age 40), was appointed by Crist to the U.S. Senate in August of 2009 to finish the term of former Senator Mel Martinez, who had resigned. Crist is seeking that Senate seat, and LeMieux promised before his appointment that he would not run for the seat himself in 2010. This raised howls of protest from Floridians of all political persuasions and charges of political cronyism from the media. (I piled on.)
So LeMieux started out with a hill to climb to show Floridians that he was more than Crist's seat-warmer and horse-holder. He's gone at this by amassing a conservative voting record and by whooping up issues and taking stands dear to the hearts of the Florida Republican base. And at least as important, when LeMieux's former benefactor left the Republican Party to run as an independent against conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio for the Senate seat, LeMieux did the honorable thing and endorsed Rubio.
This wasn't easy for LeMieux. In his remarks Friday night and in our conversation earlier in the day, he made it clear that he while he thinks Rubio is the solid conservative Florida and the nation need in the Senate this year, LeMieux and Crist are still friends.
"I think Marco will win," LeMieux told me. "This is obviously awkward for me because the governor is my friend and I'm very appreciative of him for the opportunities he's provided me. I just couldn't make the decision he made to leave the party because I believe in the principles of our party, now more than ever."
Talking with the faithful during the pre-speech cocktail hour Friday, I learned LeMieux's connection to Crist and the manner of his appointment still rankled. So even after a warm introduction by respected County Chairman Deborah Cox-Roush, the applause greeting LeMieux was tepid.
"My mother said when you make a mistake you should admit it," Cox-Roush said in her intro. She conceded she hadn't favored LeMieux's appointment, but likes the job he's done. "I'm proud to call him my United States Senator now."
LeMieux didn't avoid the subject but went right to it, saying the controversy over the way he was appointed "gives me a stronger desire to earn your trust."
Friday LeMieux laid out his view of the state of the nation and what he believes needs to be done, a view that resonates with most red-meat Republicans.
"The Democrats are trying to convince us that government is the answer to every problem. They have a fundamentally different view of the role of government than Republicans have."
LeMieux conceded that Republicans "lost their way" for a while. "We were spending too much too." But he says he is convinced the Republicans in Congress and the new class of Republicans who will be sworn in after the 2010 elections "have learned their lesson."
LeMieux identified incontinent government spending and out-of-control debt, which he called "very alarming and drastic," as the critical problems the nation faces. "This is unsustainable -- we have to elect people who understand this. It's slipping away from us." He received his only standing-O of the evening when he identified Marco Rubio as one candidate who gets it and who needs to be sent to Washington to help turn things around.
LeMieux said the way the federal government runs itself, the way it puts together a budget, or more accurately fails to put together a budget, is shocking. "It's a crazy way to run a country."
At the end of his conservative cri de coeur, it was clear that with this crowd he had a least partly overcome the manner in which he arrived in Washington. The hand he received when he finished was much warmer than the one that greeted him.
A sample from my conversation with LeMieux:
TAS: Republicans got shellacked in the general elections of '06 and '08. Do you think they've figured out why?
LeMieux: Yes, I believe Republicans have figured out why. They realize that what most Americans want is less government. What government needs to do, it should do well. The government should hold dear every taxpayer dollar. Americans are very concerned about the size of government and about the staggering debt. We see that now. We see the intensity and frustration among Americans, not just in Florida by all across the country, who want to see their government get out of this debt and spending problem. If we don't, our children aren't going to have the same America and the same opportunities that we have.
I think the Republicans coming in and the Republicans we have now realize that this country has to go on a spending diet. I've proposed to go back to 2007 spending levels. Since I've come to Washington, a little less than a year, we've increased the national debt by a trillion dollars. It took 200 years for us to accumulate our first trillion in debt. If we could live on what we spent in 2007, by 2013 we would balance the budget. And by 2020 instead of a projected debt of $25 trillion we could cut the current debt in half and save the country. Proof that this could be done is that Virginia just did it. Virginia, with a new governor (Republican Bob McDonnell) went back to 2006 spending. They were facing a big budget deficit. Now they have a surplus.
There's such a fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican parties today. In 2000, when Al Gore and George Bush ran against each other, they were trying to outdo each other on whose prescription drug plan was better. They were almost identical in the positions they put in front of the American people. That's no longer the case 10 years later.
TAS: Does Marco Rubio understand our financial crisis, and can he overcome Charlie Crist's current small lead in most polls to win in November?
LeMieux: He does. I've talked to Marco several times. I'm supporting his campaign. He knows we have to stop the spending and shrink the size of government. The (Senate) race is still in an early phase. When the governor left the Republican Party the focus turned to the governor's race and that race is front and center. I think after Labor Day, once we know who the Democratic candidate is, the Senate race will intensify. I think Marco will run a good campaign and will win. I think it will be close. Charlie Crist is well-liked in Florida. But at the end of the day, with the country in such a difficult place, and the ideology the Democrats have, Marco Rubio is going to be attractive to voters.
TAS: President Obama and his merry band know they'll have fewer horses after the 2010 election and want to get as much of their agenda through before that happens. How successful do you think they'll be in what's left of this year?
LeMieux: Harry Reid said Thursday that cap and trade is not going anywhere this year, and that's promising. I'm for energy independence, and we should be able to do an energy independence bill. But we shouldn't do it on the back of the American people who would have to pay much higher utility rates (under cap and trade). In fact we may lose jobs in this country where businesses, in response to the cost of the Financial Regulatory Reform Act, are leaving. I had one Florida business tell me that their trading desk is going to move to the Bahamas in response to more regulation. I don't think we're going to get much more done that will hurt the American economy between now and the end of the year. We're getting into the campaign cycle. Those who are trying to create bigger government have lost steam. And those of us trying to keep government small, efficient, and effective are starting to gain some ground. I also think this election is going to bring a group of new Republican senators. I don't know that we'll capture the Senate this year. That may take two cycles. But we may well capture the House.
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