The problem Florida's Republican leaders are dealing with now seems anything but rational. Foley's exit and the damage the controversy inflicts on his party's family-values image couldn't come at a worse time. The G.O.P. is facing the prospect of losing its 12-year majority in the House, and other G.O.P. incumbents in the state, such as Representative Clay Shaw, are already fighting intensely close races. On Monday,in a 90-minute closed-door meeting at Orlando International Airport, they anointed state Representative Joe Negron as Foley's replacement. But Negron faces a tougher task than a late-starting candidate would ordinarily; by law, Foley's name must remain on the Nov. 7 ballot, and though a vote for Foley would count as a vote for Negron, the chances of getting enough voters to drop their ill will toward Foley long enough to mark his name look slim at best. Even Florida's Republican Governor Jeb Bush conceded today that Negron "has an extraordinary challenge here. It's never been done before [in Florida]." Still, Bush dismissed suggestions that the G.O.P. should simply cut its losses in the 16th district as the wrongheaded advice of the "talking heads" and "politicians in Washington." Said Bush, "I think [Negron will] be a good candidate given the unusual circumstances."
Negron, 45, a conservative and fast-rising Florida pol from the coastal town of Stuart, Fla., who recently chaired the House budget committee in Tallahassee, was brought in largely because he still has a sizable war chest, about $1.5 million, left over from his aborted run this year for state Attorney General. But he's making it dramatically clear that distancing himself as harshly as possible from Foley and even calling for the heads of congressional (read G.O.P.) leaders who may have covered up for Foley will be key to his come-from-behind prospects.
Saying he was "shocked" and "outraged" by the revelations about Foley who this week returned to Florida to enter rehab for alcoholism Negron visibly choked up on Monday when he was reminded that the pages involved in the Foley scandal were about the age of his own teenage children. And he insisted that "we need to know what happened, when it happened, who knew about [Foley's conduct]. If people knew about it and didn't report it, they should be held accountable... It's very offensive."
Mahoney, of course, won't let Negron have the Foley outrage platform all to himself in the race. "The salacious part I have no interest in talking about, though I pray for Foley and his family and the people he involved in this," says Mahoney. "But trust in government is a genuine issue here. We need to have the Speaker [of the House] and the House leadership address this, from the perspective of parents and not politicians and if we find out there were calculated decisions made to protect seats and power, then the chips need to fall where they may."
Making things worse for Negron is the fact that Mahoney, 50, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the kind of conservative Democrat whom many Republicans in the G.O.P.-leaning 16th District, which includes Palm Beach and the state's eastern Treasure Coast, can stomach more comfortably in the voting booth. Mahoney, in fact, was himself a Republican until he decided to challenge Foley last year. Born in New Jersey and raised an Irish Catholic Democrat, he became a Reagan Republican in the 1980s; his platform is heavy on economic-related issues like the growing financial struggles of small businesses in Florida. But he returned to the Democrats, he says, because of the Bush Administration and the G.O.P.'s hard turn to the right. "I realized their Republican values were not my Republican values," he says. "But I can communicate with both groups. The biggest qualification for a House candidate used to be your ability to work across the aisle and solve problems. I want to restore that."