Republican front-runner enters Florida governor's race

When Adam Putnam walks into the Curly Tails Barbecue in Bartow, he knows half the people inside and orders his favorite dish, a Barn Salad - which amounts to a mound of shredded meat on top of some vegetables. This is his hometown, and where he feels most comfortable.

It's where he brought a reporter from The Associated Press on Tuesday to discuss what he's been long-rumored to desire: a run for governor.

"I'm thrilled that people save for a whole year to visit our state, and they save for a lifetime to retire to our state," said the 42-year-old, who currently holds the elected office of agriculture commissioner. "But I think Florida can be more than that. I think Florida can be the launchpad for the American Dream."

Putnam says he wants to encourage young people to come to Florida for high-tech agribusiness and science jobs. Setting aside money for research for citrus greening - the disease that's devastating the orange and grapefruit groves - is one example of how to draw smart, young professionals here, he said.

Putnam will hold a kickoff party not far from Curly Tails on Wednesday, in front of the historic courthouse built in 1908. The streets will be shut down for the event and Putnam spent Tuesday inviting everyone he talked with.

"Come on out," he said to a retired judge at Curly Tails. "We'll feed you."

It's a far cry from the news release and video that Florida's current governor, Rick Scott, announced his candidacy with a press release and a video.

Putnam is the first Republican to declare his candidacy for the election that's 18 months away - although Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is considering a run and said he will decide whether to run for the Republican nomination after the 2018 Legislative session ends. Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King have all announced to run for the Democratic nomination.

Putnam, a married father of four, has always eyed the Governor's mansion, and his political career - which spans his entire adult life - is something that his critics point to as a potential downside. At 21, he ran for the Florida Legislature. From 2001 to 2011, he was a congressman. He's been agriculture commissioner since 2011, overseeing everything from credit-card skimmers to wildfires to a deadly insect that's crippled Florida's citrus industry.

But Putnam is relying on his down-home style and his fifth-generation roots to boost his credibility among regular voters. He mentions eating at Ruby Tuesday's, listening to both old country and western and Taylor Swift (because of his daughters), and loves to talk about his days working on his family's citrus farms and cattle ranches.

In terms of his positions on issues, he's squarely conservative: pro-death penalty, anti-abortion and pro-gun. He's been especially passionate about school lunch programs. During his time as agriculture commissioner, he's encouraged school districts to align their menus to local harvests.

He begins his campaign with about $7 million in the bank; his political action committee, Florida Grown, received $250,000 from Big Sugar - one of the state's most lucrative crops - alone.

He does acknowledge that campaigning may be different in the age of President Donald Trump. Putnam said that in his first 100 days, Trump made a "fantastic" selection for the Supreme Court with his nomination of Neil Gorsuch. And he added that what the president has done "to roll back some of the craziest rules to come out of EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and the Corps of Engineers and other places that would have had a profound impact on Florida's economy ... have all been positive things."

The governor's race, however, is about Florida, not national politics, he said.

"People want leadership that's conservative," he says. "They're tired of people misleading them about the scope of the problem or the difficulty of the solutions. It is who I am and where I am from that represents the frustration with Tallahassee and with Washington. People believe the disconnect occurs because there's a lack of honesty and authenticity."


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This story has been clarified to reflect that Putnam has $7 million, not $10.5 million in his coffers, after expenses.