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Gardiner secures pledges; Thrasher says fight's still on, Negron agrees

After days of speculation, Orlando Sen. Andy Gardiner confirmed what we have previously reported: he has won the support of rival Sen. Jack Latvala and has secured enough Republican pledges to serve as Senate president in 2014. 

But Gardiner, a vice president of external affairs for the not-for-profit hospital Orlando Health, now faces a new rival: Sen. John Thrasher, a former House speaker and current Rules chairman. Thrasher had previously supported Gardiner until this week when he attempted a coup to push Gardiner aside and become a candidate to lead the 40-member chamber himself. 

The Florida Legislature elects its presiding officers for two-year terms and, in the midst of term limits, the battle is waged years ahead of time and is fiercely competitive.

Gardiner, 43, wouldn't say how many pledges he has secured but described it as "a significant number" that includes "the entire caucus coming together" as well as incoming Senate candidates, he said.

Thrasher, however, said he remains a candidate for Senate president, especially since this will be a competitive election season when 12 of the Senate's 40 seats are open and every member must run for re-election.

"In a year like this, when we have a big summer of elections, a lot of things can change, seems to me,'' Thrasher said. "I don't think anybody has pledges until the day they get designated. To me that's what it's about."

But when asked whether he is seeking the seat for 2014 or 2016, Thrasher said: "whenever....It's something I'm not going to discuss in the press. Anybody else who does, that's their choice."

Gardiner would not confirm whether Latvala has secured the pledges for 2016 saying, "I can assure you there were no deals. It’s all free will." But several senators said they signed pledges for both Gardiner and Latvala on Friday and believed both of them are positioned to be the presiding officers in line to succeed Sen. Don Gaetz, who takes the helm next year.

Latvala refused to comment: "It's Andy's day,'' he told reporters.

Adding to the drama was Sen. Joe Negron, the long-time friend and confidante of Gardiner who abandoned support for him this week and aligned himself with Thrasher. The two of them unleashed the feuding when he and Thrasher met with six of Gardiner's supporters on Tuesday and asked them to sign pledges for Thrasher in 2014 and Negron in 2016.

"We're still in the first quarter of a long process,'' Negron said late Thursday, adding that he remains a candidate for 2016 and his 2014 pledge remains with Thrasher.

Negron noted how he helped Gardiner when he first ran, unsuccessfully, for House speaker against Marco Rubio in 2006 and "no senator in this building did more to help Andy Gardiner become Senate president than I did -- to work on his team for a long, long time."

"I didn't lose confidence, I concluded that he was going to have difficulty in getting across the finish line,'' Negron said.

But Negron had also bashed Latvala, who orchestrated the victory by helping Gardiner win enough support by merging their supporters. "In case you've been keeping score at home, he's not exactly been Sen. Gardiner's biggest fan,'' Negron said, noting that Latvala recruited candidates to run against Gardiner supporters "and didn't have a lot of nice things to say about Andy Gardiner."

"It's way too early to reach any conclusions about 2016,'' he said. "But if you reporting is accurate about 2014, I congratulate Andy Gardiner."

 Gardiner, however, now brimming with confidence, hinted the doubts would be raised: "There will always been speculation as to how it comes together and when it coems together. But members came together and I’m just incredibly incredibily humbled."