Grayson remark gives new urgency to calls for a GOP challenger back home

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) has accused Republicans of being “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.”

In reality, it’s their feet they’ve been dragging.

A long period of dithering in the Republican primary to face Grayson is about to come to an abrupt halt, and not just because the congressman is on a quest to be heard.

Grayson’s divisive comments, in which he said Republicans’ healthcare plan involved wanting people to “die quickly,” combined with the new financial quarter and some impatient potential candidates, brought a new sense of urgency to one of the last top-targeted seats without a challenger.

Republicans in the district expect that distinction to change in the next few days, with decisions due from Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty and former state Sen. Dan Webster. The two have loomed over the field of potential candidates but have yet to make their intentions known.

Orange County Republican Party Chairman Lew Oliver said he “would bet money that this is going to be over in a day or two.”

“The end of the weekend is probably the final straw-dropping time,” Oliver said. “At that point, the people who have been patient, waiting for the giants to decide, will say, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.’ Other folks will start jumping into the race and, at that point, they’re not getting out.”

Crotty said he and Webster have been trading calls, and he said he should be ready to make an announcement “probably early next week.”

“I think we’ve hit a point in time in the first few days of October when it needs to [happen], because of the fundraising quarter,” he said. The third quarter began Oct. 1.

Webster appears to be option No. 1 for Republican leaders, who are worried about some rising negatives for Crotty amid a toll hike and allegations about ethical misconduct with a developer. But Webster has also been notoriously gun-shy about the process, and now lesser-known candidates are asserting themselves.

“Some people are getting pretty frustrated with the wait,” Orlando GOP consultant John Dowless said. “Nobody’s demanding it, but that’s just a respect they are giving Webster.”

State Rep. Steve Precourt and state Sen. Andy Gardiner would be next in line as potential establishment candidates, with Precourt appearing a particularly good bet.

Former state Rep. Bill Sublette (R), who ran for the seat in 2000, has spoken to many of the players and said he thought Gardiner was unlikely to run. But he expected Precourt would.

“If Webster and Crotty don’t run, I think Precourt’s in for sure,” Sublette said.

Beyond that, potential candidates include college executive Belinda Keiser and Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders.

A wildcard is Armando Gutierrez, the 28-year-old son of a politically active Cuban émigré of the same name. Gutierrez, whose father served as spokesman for Elian Gonzalez’s family during the child’s well-publicized custody saga, is making some waves as a potential candidate.

The junior Gutierrez has money and connections and could run against one of the big-name candidates as an outsider. He is a good bet to enter the race regardless of others’ plans.

Spokesman Brian Graham said Gutierrez isn’t worried about “so much who else is running, but if he himself is willing to run.”

Dowless said he expects a primary now that Grayson has spouted off on national television.

“He’s making some Republicans pretty angry, and they’re getting a bit more fired up,” Dowless said. “I would be surprised if someone doesn’t announce pretty darn quick here.”

Despite his powerful rhetoric, Democrats have stuck by Grayson. On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said there was no reason for him to apologize, and she suggested Republicans had said things just as bad.

“If anybody’s going to apologize, everybody should apologize,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference. “[Republicans] are holding Democrats to a higher standard than their own members.”

The White House also refused to be dragged into the debate.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that regardless of party, President Barack Obama wants all lawmakers to be civil in their disagreements.

“This goes for anybody from whatever political party and whatever end of the political spectrum, that we ought to be able to have an honest, calm debate about healthcare, the need for healthcare reform, without disparaging each other,” Gibbs said.

Grayson’s district is among the leading handful of targets on the national GOP’s list. Despite trending toward Democrats in recent years, Republicans blamed their 2008 loss on the environment and a poor candidate in Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), who nearly lost to an under-funded primary challenger before dropping the general election.

Oliver, the county GOP chairman, said the only reason Republicans are still sorting themselves out is because of Grayson’s personal wealth — $2.5 million of which he used in his race last year.

“Were it not for the issue of raising money, I could pluck a Republican off the street corner that could beat Grayson,” Oliver said.

A spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, Eric Jotkoff, said Grayson has shown his independence this week, and it should serve him well in 2010.

“That is exactly what Congressman Grayson continues to do as he fights waste, fraud and abuse and works to hold health insurance companies accountable so all Floridians can get the care they need, when they need it,” Jotkoff said.


Mike Soraghan and Sam Youngman contributed to this article.