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Seeking to Erase Stain of Foley, Republicans May Turn to Rooney

With instant message-gate in the rearview mirror, Pittsburgh Steelers heir Tom Rooney (R) is fast becoming the early darling of south-central Florida GOP diehards, who desperately want to start a new chapter after the demoralizing free fall of once-popular former Rep. Mark Foley (R).

“Among the base, [Rooney’s] clearly the favorite” for the Republican nomination in Foley’s old 16th district, a knowledgeable local GOP source said.

Rooney, a lawyer and former Army captain, is one of three viable Republicans walking parades and working half-empty rooms 10 months out from Florida’s late primary. The winner gets to take on freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney (D), who won the seat after Foley abruptly resigned less than two months before Election Day last year.

Four-term state Rep. Gayle Harrell and Palm Beach Gardens Councilman Hal Valeche also are seeking the Republican nomination.

Foley’s late departure last year left local Republicans in a pickle. Although Florida law permitted another candidate to run in Foley’s stead, the disgraced lawmaker’s name remained on the ballot. And predictably, the political suicide mission had few takers.

Republicans eventually enlisted local lawyer and state Rep. Joe Negron, who earlier in the year dropped out of a statewide race and still had considerable cash in the bank. Negron went on to raise more than $800,000 and whittled down a double-digit polling deficit to 2 points on game day, a turnaround that surprised even some Democrats.

Quickly into his term, Mahoney, Foley’s wealthy Democratic opponent who remained a long shot last year until the scandal broke, became a Republican target, his victory a stark reminder for Republicans of how the party’s wheels fell off in the final weeks before the midterms.

And now with a once-comfortable Republican seat in enemy hands, local Republicans are quietly whispering about wanting to start over, putting the Foley affair behind them and backing Rooney, an untested 36-year-old conservative whose fundraising potential and lack of political experience is quickly gaining support among conservatives in the district.

Unlike other Republican losses last year, Rooney said Friday that the loss of Foley’s seat was due primarily to local Republican apathy over the Foley scandal.

“[Foley] was very well-liked. It was just disappointment — on top of everything else,” Rooney told Roll Call. “The numbers are pretty clear that turnout became a problem with Republicans; where turnout was usually pretty strong, it just wasn’t there.”

The district, which takes in several south-central Florida communities, both along the coast and inland, gave President Bush an 8-point victory over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 White House election.

“Widespread dissatisfaction with Republican control in the House,” Rooney said, “was true in a large part of the country, but I’m not so sure if that was the case in district 16.”

Rooney said he believes the GOP can win the seat back because voters are still thirsting for change.

“The idea that people already voted for change in 2006 remains to be seen,” he said.

Rooney raised $429,000 through Sept. 30, closing out the third quarter with $337,000 in the bank, compared with primary GOP rival Harrell’s $251,000 third-quarter cash-on-hand total. Valeche, considered a distant third for the nomination, had $243,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30.

Mahoney, by contrast, had more than $1.1 million in the bank at the end of September.

Although all three GOP candidates’ third-quarter totals were roughly in the same vicinity, some Republicans point to Rooney’s potential ability to raise money out-of-state, a function of his family’s connections in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, which also could be a sigh of relief for the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Rooney has the package people are looking for,” a knowledgeable local Republican source said. “The NRCC is officially neutral, but the Republican establishment is behind Rooney because he’s new, young, dynamic.”

Unlike Harrell, “[Rooney] doesn’t have eight years of votes,” the source continued. “People in Florida are very upset right now about their insurance going up, their property taxes and they think the Legislature hasn’t done enough to solve these problems.”

Through Sept. 30, 61 percent of Rooney’s campaign contributions originated in Florida. Nearly $100,000 was from the Keystone State.

“If Rooney wins the nomination, [he’s] eight weeks away from, hopefully, becoming a U.S. Congressman,” the source continued. “You can’t tell me that a family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers isn’t going to go all out.”

Harrell’s primary attribute, local Republicans sources agreed, is her name recognition in the district. Unlike Valeche, a promising candidate who is relatively unknown throughout the district, Harrell’s state House seat sits entirely within the Congressional district.

But given that perceived advantage, some Republicans are quietly questioning why she hasn’t done more with her head start.

“Considering the advantage of being in office, raising money, I think it shows weakness in her campaign,” a source said. “Face it, if you are already in public office and you’re in the fourth term in the Legislature, you should be lapping the field.”

In an interview with Roll Call, Harrell warned against drawing conclusions too soon. She said her campaign has not done any polls and suggested that once Rooney’s novelty wears off, Republicans voters will acknowledge the grown-up in the race.

“My experience as a legislator will put me in a much stronger place to hit the floor running when I get to the U.S. Congress,” Harrell said. “His family connections, the money his family has … certainly gives him some name recognition.”

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