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Amid fundraising binge, Republican intrigue in FL Senate President race continues

It's almost session. Do you know who your Florida Senate president will be in two years?

Neither do Sen. Andy Gardiner and Sen. Jack Latvala. The two are still running neck and neck to replace Sen. Don Gaetz, who's to leave the post after the 2014 legislative session.

Advantage: Gardiner. He's current Senate President Mike Haridopolos' Republican leader and his biggest ally is the master of the Capitol game, former House Speaker-turned-uberlobbyist-turned Sen. John Thrasher, a former Republican Party of Florida chairman to boot. Also, Gardiner's raising more money than Latvala, and Gardiner's donors tend to be more on the conservative side of the spectrum (e.g., the Florida Chamber of Commerce), while Latvala is raising money from trial lawyers and unions who tend to be more Democratically aligned.

Even Latvala acknowledges Gardiner has the edge in collecting pledges from the fellow Republicans who dominate the chamber and ultimately decide who the Senate leader will be.

"I'm behind -- but maybe by just one or two votes," Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said.

And that's bad news for Gardiner. Despite all his advantages, he can't yet seal the deal. He isn't as deft a political operator as Latvala. And there's a good amount of discontent with Haridopolos team among Republican senators, who felt they got punked by the House last session when they were forced to cast a final vote to end session after 3:30 in the morning last session. A rather angry Latvala, who gave Haridopolos an earful in private, made a speech on the floor in which he essentially promised to restore the independence of the Senate.

Today, there are persistent rumors that Thrasher will replace Gardiner in the race. But Gardiner says he's still running. And Thrasher said he's not undermining his friend from Orlando. 

"I'm 100 percent behind Andy Gardiner," Thrasher says. What if Gardiner leaves the race? "He isn't," Thrasher said. But what if?

"If I stay in the Senate long enough, I'd probably run for Senate president, let's put it that way," Thrasher chuckled.

But who else will be in the Senate is key. Latvala could get a boost if one likely Gardiner pledge, Gainesville's Steve Oelrich, decides to run for Congress. Expect Gardiner and Latvala to pick candidates in a primary race to replace Oelrich. 

Expect the jockeying to ratchet up behind the scenes with the approach of the Jan. 10 session. It's a pressure cooker. Lawmakers have to balance a shortfall-plagued budget. They have to draw new legislative districts amid two new constitutional amendments that tie their hands and virtually guarantee lawsuits. They're debating whether to expand gaming. The rates of joblessness and home foreclosures are stubbornly high. The rates of the state-run property insurer of last resort, Citizens, are rising. And it's a presidential election year.

Amid all that, Gardiner and Latvala are pulling double duty: Shoring up votes and raising money.

Since the end of last quarter, when he raised $130,500 (in third place behind Gardiner's committee), Latvala's political committee Florida Leadership Fund has so far raised $191,802.89 more from 76 contributors for a total of $322,302.89 since July. The Florida Professional Fire Fighters gave the most, $32,000, followed by SEIU ($15,000) and the Florida PBA ($12,500).

Since the end of last quarter, when he raised $285,100 (second only to the political committee controlled by future House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Trinity), Gardiner's political committee Protect Our Liberty has so far raised $143,500 more from just 18 contributers for a total of $428,600 since August. Disney World, fighting gaming expansion, kicked in the biggest chunk: $50,000. Ever-giving U.S. Sugar contributed $25,000. Caveat: Gardiner gave back $250,000 to RPOF's Senate Majority fund. 

Gardiner's other expenditures are also telling. He has dropped big sums on two of the best Republican-operative shops in Florida: $20,000 for West Palm Beach-based Public Concepts (run by Randy Nielsen) and $17,500 for Data Targeting (run by Pat Bainter and based in Gainesville -- perfect location in case there's drama with Oelrich's seat).

With a team like that, it's little wonder that Gardiner's sticking with the race.

"I'm just focused on what I'm doing," Gardiner said. He said he heard the rumors about Thrasher allegedly pushing him aside. And he said it's old news.

"You're losing your touch," he joked. "That was a rumor a few weeks ago."

So was the rumor that he actually won the presidency.