The tony Fort Lauderdale beachside hotel where Adam Putnam campaigned for Florida governor Monday was entirely different territory from the historic Polk County Courthouse where he debuted his candidacy last week, surrounded by crates of Florida oranges and the sounds of a marching-band fiddle.
In Broward, the most liberal county in the state, Putnam knew to offer the sort of business-friendly message that binds Republicans together.
“Whether you grow up in downtown Pompano or in a small town in the middle of the state like where I’m from we need to have a job climate in Florida that doesn’t require you to leave your town to find a decent career,” Putnam said at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66.
Putnam gave a 12-minute speech — his first in South Florida as a candidate — to the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, an economic-development group, as part of his 10-day bus tour across the state. The nonpartisan alliance invited Putnam months ago before he was a declared candidate.
On his campaign website, Putnam vows to protect the Second Amendment and the “lives of the unborn,” and promises to work with President Donald Trump to “cut funding for sanctuary cities.”
While those stances put Putnam safely in a conservative camp, those issues aren’t the ones that appeal to a segment of South Florida Republicans — some of whom support rights for undocumented immigrants and care less about social issues and more about cutting taxes and reducing business regulations.
In Broward before a room full of lawyers, developers and business owners — including many Democrats and likely independents — Putnam avoided hot-button partisan issues and spoke in favor of strengthening educational opportunities for technical education, reducing unemployment and protecting the state’s water supply.
In a four-minute question-and-answer session with reporters after his speech, Putnam said his pitch to South Florida is the same as to small towns elsewhere.
“We are focused on education, we are focused on protecting our constitutional freedoms, creating a climate for businesses to flourish and families to prosper,” he said. “These are universal values.”
The 2018 races will in part serve as a referendum on how voters feel about Trump, who won Florida by about 1 percentage point. Asked about Trump’s performance, Putnam praised his choice of Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court and his effort to cut regulations.
When asked about Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Putnam offered a speck of mild criticism.
“I find the timing curious,” he said. When pressed to elaborate, Putnam added: “It’s always interesting when someone fires the FBI director. It will be interesting to see as they dig in and take testimony from the director the circumstances behind that.”
Putnam punted when asked if he disagrees with any actions by Trump.
“There isn’t anybody I agree with 100 percent — my wife would say the same thing,” he said. (Though Putnam initially backed Jeb Bush, he ultimately supported Trump for president.)
Republicans who run statewide in Florida aim to run up high margins in more conservative, northern parts of the state to cut into the Democratic bastion of South Florida — including Broward, which has about 600,000 registered Democrats.
Broward also has about 257,000 registered Republicans, the fourth-highest in the state behind Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, and slightly behind Palm Beach.
Todd Drosky, a Republican and lawyer who was elected to a nonpartisan seat on the Deerfield Beach City Commission earlier this year, said he is looking for a candidate who will demonstrate that he cares not only about North Florida and agriculture.
“He will have to address urban issues facing South Florida...,” he said before Putnam’s speech. “I want to hear about development issues, taxes.”
Putnam became the automatic Republican front runner due to his fundraising — about $11 million for his political committee so far — and his long résumé as an elected official. He is serving his second term as state agriculture commissioner and previously served in Congress and the state Legislature.
He became the first prominent Republican to announce his candidacy, although House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes and state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater are considering running.
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who served one term in the Panhandle area, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Orlando businessman Chris King are running. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and trial lawyer John Morgan are also considering a bid.
On Monday afternoon, Putnam was scheduled for interviews with Fox News and then planned to drop in at Pasión del Cielo coffee shop in Coral Gables.
Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report.