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Gardiner 'a happy warrior' beats back attempt to crush bid for Senate prez

Sen. Andy Gardiner, once considered a weakened candidate for Senate president in 2014, on Tuesday appeared to have beat back an effort to end his candidacy and his supporters hinted at building a leadership team that included his one-time rival for the job, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

"I'm a happy warrior,'' Gardiner said late Tuesday, after a day of shuttling between Senate offices. "I am very humbled and very happy. It’s been a real wide-opening thing for me. I don’t consider anything to be nasty. I’ve seen an overwhelming amount of support." 

The bitter power struggle emerged mid-day Tuesday when three of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers -- Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart and Sen. Don Gaetz -- attempted to seize control of the leadership fight between Gardiner and Latvala.  

Thrasher, a former House speaker from St. Augustine, and Negron of Stuart, either personally or through staff, asked several senators to reverse their support for Gardiner of Winter Park. Supporting them, several senators said, was Gaetz of Niceville, the incoming Senate president.

Thrasher and Negron asked Gardiner’s supporters to sign two pledges: one for Thrasher to become Senate president in 2014 and another for Negron in 2016.  

Such a move would have not only pushed Gardiner out of the running for the Senate presidency in 2014, but also would have secured the upset of Latvala, who is competing directly with Gardiner for the 2014 spot, but who could also serve in 2016. 

The Senate elects presidents for two-year terms and the fight to become the designated for the top spot can be bitter and fierce.

Thrasher, who served as House speaker from 1998-2000, had initially supported Gardiner but recently lost confidence in him. Rather than let Latvala, himself a former long-time state senator, elbow in to the post, Thrasher began seeking pledges for himself.

“If anybody asks me, I’ve said I’ve been supporting Andy,’’ Thrasher said late Tuesday. “But if Andy can’t get there – and I don’t know where that discussions on that are – I said I would consider it.”

Negron wouldn't confirm nor deny the reports. "The caucus is always having discussions inside our family on the future,'' he told reporters. "And today's like any other day."

In return for agreeing to support Thrasher and Negron, members would be given promises of chairmanships and election support, several senators said.

After an afternoon of behind-the-scenes discussions, with Republican senators furiously shuttling between each other’s offices, there was no resolution in sight. 

“We’re not talking policy,’’ said Latvala after he emerged from a 45 minute meeting in his office with Gardiner supporters: Sens. Rene Garcia and Charlie Dean. Also in the meeting were Latvala supporters Sens. Greg Evers, Dennis Jones and Paula Dockery.

Several members said they refused to relinquish their support of Gardiner and others, who had supported Latvala, also remained aligned with him. 

The schism appeared to create an opening for Gardiner to cut a deal with Latvala, with each of them taking a turn at the helm.

Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, a Gardiner supporter compared it to Abraham Lincoln’s team of rivals and predicted Gardiner would prevail. 

“There is a long history in the Republican Party of rivals coming together to make a strong and successful team,’’ Simmons said.   

Gardiner wouldn't concede that a coalition is in works but told some members that he felt betrayed by his three Senate colleagues who he considered personal friends. He said he was also encouraged. 

“Out of difficult things come great opportunities,’’ he said. “There may be some changes but it does not change my commitment to lead the Senate.''

The day-long drama was an unwelcome distraction to some members.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who is believed to have pledged to Latvala said she is "trying to stay out of it. She said she thought "that everybody was going to call a truce until after session so that we could focus on the budget and redistricting and important bills."

-- Staff writers Steve Bousquet, Katie Sanders, Kim Wilmath and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report