ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ George LeMieux is considered the political mastermind behind former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's electoral successes, and that's an image LeMieux must overcome if he hopes to win the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Crist is derided by Florida conservatives and tea party activists for his moderate stances on abortion and gay rights and his friendliness with President Barack Obama, whom he hugged during a 2009 rally in support of the president's economic plans. Crist also bolted the GOP and ran as an independent in the 2010 Senate race when it became clear he couldn't beat tea party favorite Marco Rubio in the primary.
LeMieux is working hard to distance himself from his former boss, pitching himself as a conservative's conservative in his quest to earn the nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. He also touts the experience he gained during a 16-month stint filling the state's other seat in the U.S. Senate.
LeMieux received warm applause from Florida tea party leaders last weekend when he told their convention that government employees shouldn't receive pensions nor have unions and that government shouldn't provide subsidies to produce renewable energy products.
This is the same person who was Crist's top adviser when the governor helped open a teachers union headquarters and received national attention for holding a summit on clean energy sources and pushed for tens of millions of dollars in state money to develop them.
Many at the state tea party convention were skeptical of Lemieux because of those ties, but they're also willing to listen. Organizer Karin Hoffman said tea party supporters tend to do their homework and are willing to dismiss the idea of guilt by association.
That's exactly what LeMieux was hoping. He points to his own record during the time he spent in the Senate from 2009-11 after Crist appointed him to finish the term of Mel Martinez, who had resigned. LeMieux opposed Obama's major economic plans and voted against the health care overhaul.
“As Republicans, we're all disappointed in (Crist), but what's important here is what I did when I was in the U.S. Senate and what my positions are now and what I'll do when I go back,'' LeMieux said before the event. “By and large, I'm a limited federal government guy and I proved that when I was in the U.S. Senate. When I was there, the number one issue I talked about, before other people were talking about it, is that we're going to bankrupt this government with our debt and deficit and these folks understand.''
LeMieux skipped a tea party convention last November. At the time he was a distant second to “undecided'' among Republican voters in a Quinnipiac University poll tracking the race. Congressman Connie Mack IV soon entered the race and LeMieux found himself trailing a real person, one who has both money and name recognition because his father, Connie Mack III, once held this Senate seat.
At last weekend's forum, in which candidates individually took questions from a three-person panel, LeMieux was immediately asked about his ties to Crist. He responded that no one is more disappointed in Crist than he is, and he immediately backed Rubio when Crist left the party.
LeMieux served as Crist's chief of staff when Crist was attorney general, leaving the position to run Crist's campaign for governor. Late in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, Crist refused to appear at a rally with Republican President George W. Bush, who was falling in the polls. When Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, was asked why Crist declined the invitation, he responded, “Just ask George LeMieux.'' The snub received a lot of media attention, but was also seen as a smart move to win over independents and Democrats who were unhappy with the president. When Crist won, campaign staffers wore “Ask George LeMieux'' T-shirts during the celebration.
With LeMieux advising him, Crist earned a reputation as a moderate Republican who went out of his way to earn support from Democrats. The image of Crist and Obama hugging at the stimulus rally was used repeatedly by Rubio against Crist when he ran for Senate.
Such images could prove to be a liability for LeMieux in the race against Mack. The winner of that Aug. 14 contest will face Nelson, who is seeking a third term.
“People are smart. They know that LeMieux was the one that orchestrated Charlie's positions on everything,'' Mack said. “He sounds good today, but this is a new found position and I think we need someone who's been consistent.''
Critics saw Crist's appointment of LeMieux to the Senate as a reward for his loyalty. After LeMieux interviewed with Crist for the appointment, he took questions from reporters and described himself as a “Charlie Crist Republican.'' LeMieux also assured Crist he wouldn't challenge him for the GOP Senate nomination in 2010.
Crist was considered the favorite to win that bid, raising tons of money and securing the support early on from the Republican establishment in Tallahassee and Washington. But then Rubio rose from obscurity, using support from tea party groups to chip away at Crist's support and eventually pass him in the polls.
LeMieux' campaign focuses primarily on his record since his appointment to the Senate and not his time with Crist. These days, he sounds more like Rubio in calling for changes to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and immediate cuts in federal spending to address the deficit and debt.
Crist declined to talk about LeMieux' efforts to woo tea party supporters.
“Campaigns are tough things and I'll let them run theirs and wish them all well,'' Crist said.
LeMieux said he and Crist ran into each other at a political event three months ago and greeted each other politely, and they exchanged pleasantries over the December holidays, but they no longer maintain personal communication.
Before the tea party forum, Sally Baptiste of Orlando approached LeMieux wearing an “I Love My Country _ It's The Government I'm Afraid Of'' T-shirt and asked him several questions about his interpretations of the Constitution. After the conversation, Baptiste admitted she was skeptical about LeMieux.
“When I first saw his name out there running for Senate I said, `Forget that,''' she said. “Truly the jury is out right now. I'm willing to listen, but truthfully I don't trust any of them.''
LeMieux, however, convinced enough of the tea party leaders his conservative positions are for real. He won a straw poll after the candidates forum with 53 percent of the vote, compared to 25 percent for retired Army Col. Mike McCalister and 21 percent for Mack.
Hoffman said there's a willingness to look at LeMieux' Senate record and policies he supports now. And she said he came across as having specific answers on issues like federal spending.
“Tea party groups are very informed and do a lot of research. When you have the specifics, they love that,'' she said, adding that she wasn't surprised LeMieux won the straw poll. “Tea party groups don't want rally, they want real.''