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Will Foley’s Exit Allow Democrats to Breathe Easier?

Rep. Mark Foley, considered the Republican frontrunner and only GOP moderate in the 2004 Florida Senate race, dropped his bid Friday, leaving behind a field of four conservatives battling to distinguish themselves in the race for Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) seat.

Foley, who had previously said he would run for Senate regardless of whether Graham ultimately decides to seek re-election, cited the fact that his father had recently been diagnosed with cancer as the reason for dropping his bid and seeking re-election to the House.

Graham is currently running for president and is prevented by state law from running for the White House and Senate simultaneously. He has yet to rule out running for a fourth term if his presidential bid stumbles before Florida’s May 7 filing deadline.

“For the past 49 years of my life, both my parents have been at my side every step of the way. … They have been unselfish in their commitment to my goals and ambitions,” Foley wrote in a letter to supporters announcing his decision. “Now it is my turn to be there when they need me.”

Foley’s exit from the field leaves former Rep. Bill McCollum, who lost a 2000 Senate bid, state Sen. Daniel Webster, state House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) in the race for the GOP nomination. Weldon, who is currently exploring a run, has indicated he is likely to formally announce his Senate candidacy by mid-October. However, the Republican field may winnow some if Graham, arguably the most popular politician in the state, opts to run for another term.

Foley had dominated the fundraising game in the race so far and he had been traveling the state aggressively to build support for his bid. But his campaign was not without some controversy as well.

In May, he held a conference call with reporters to respond to an article in an alternative Florida newspaper which debated whether Foley should disclose his sexual orientation.

During the call, Foley declared that the topic of one’s sexuality was not appropriate for public discussion and blamed Democrats for spreading salacious rumors about his lifestyle.

However, Republicans were also taking part in distributing the story and it was widely believed that the allegations would have been raised by social conservatives down the road.

Still, as the most moderate Republican in the race, political handicappers believed he could have won the nomination if the conservative base was split among the other candidates.

The Florida state Legislature voted this year to forgo runoff elections in 2004, meaning a candidate must only take a plurality of the vote to win a primary.

Democrats wasted no time in framing Foley’s departure as a boon to the party.

“With Foley out of the race that Republican primary has lurched way to the right which is obviously an advantage to the Democrats,” said one party strategist. “That message coming out of the Republican primary will certainly be less appealing to swing voters than if Foley had been in there to balance it out some.”

However, a Republican strategist said the most significant factor with Foley out of the race is that the frontrunner label is up for grabs.

“With the exit of Foley the field is wide open,” the strategist said.

While McCollum is a known commodity among primary voters because he has run statewide before, the strategist said, Foley’s departure provides more of an opportunity for Byrd, Weldon and Webster, a former state House Speaker, to prove themselves as viable nominees.

Many Republicans privately question McCollum’s ability to win the general election, citing his poor performance against now-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) after the GOP field was cleared for him in the open 2000 Senate contest.

Foley had been the only Republican from south Florida in the race, and all four of the remaining candidates hail from the same central part of the state.

Now the scramble begins to pick up support and money previously pledged to Foley, who said he will return contributions to anyone who seeks a refund. He had close to $3 million in the bank as of the end of June.

Following Foley’s announcement, the other Republicans in the race heaped praise on their now former opponent.

“Mark would have been a formidable candidate,” Weldon said in a statement. “But our Republican bench is deep and I will be talking with my supporters as well as Mark’s to see where this race will go next.”

Still, Graham remains the largest unknown variable in the field.

With Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who is also seeking the White House in 2004, expected to make some announcement regarding his re-election plans this week, Graham may face increased pressure to make a final decision about running for Senate before the end of the year.

The Democratic strategist noted that Foley’s exit may “give Graham a little bit more breathing room” in making the decision because the Republican field has no frontrunner.

If Graham does not run for another term, Reps. Allen Boyd and Peter Deutsch as well as Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor are all bent on seeking the Democratic Senate nomination.

Castor gained the backing of EMILY’S List, which helps funnel money to women candidates who favor abortion rights, last week.

Foley’s announcement also created a domino effect in his West Palm Beach-based 16th district. State Reps. Gayle Harrell and Joe Negron, who were seeking to replace Foley immediately dropped their bids Friday.

In a statement, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) praised Foley and welcomed him back into his House race.

“Mark Foley has served the people of Florida well over the years, and while I wish it could have been under happier circumstances, I know the members of the House welcome his return,” Reynolds said.

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