At Palm Beach rally, the foe is breast cancer

Fernando and Jodi Oliveira, with sequined bras to underscore their cause: a cure for breast cancer. She backs Gingrich.
Fernando and Jodi Oliveira, with sequined bras to underscore their cause: a cure for breast cancer. She backs Gingrich. (MELISSA DRIBBEN / Staff)
Posted: January 29, 2012

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - They rallied by the thousands before dawn Saturday, but not for Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum.

While four presidential candidates crisscrossed Florida in frantic anticipation of Tuesday's Republican primary, the women who gathered on Flagler Drive, overlooking the water and Palm Beach's bleached white skyline, were campaigning for a cure for breast cancer. Politics was secondary.

At the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and grandmothers filled the streets with a sea of pink regalia - fuchsia feather boas, flamingo tutus, sequined bras brazenly worn as outerwear, and a cacophony of T-shirt slogans including "Yes, they're fake. My real ones tried to kill me!"

The annual race drew 20,000 participants - breast-cancer survivors, their loved ones, colleagues, and friends. To the extent that anyone took time to talk of that other race, health was the lens through which they viewed it.

Among them was one influential Republican - Nancy Brinker, who founded the national Komen charity in 1982 to honor her sister's memory. To date, it has raised $2 billion for research and community-outreach programs. Brinker has donated generously to the GOP and its candidates for years. But many participants in Saturday's race differed with her politically.

"You won't find many Republicans here because of the problem with preexisting conditions," said Debbie Jaffe, who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago. Last year, she said, when a mobile-phone company laid her off, she lost her health coverage - and, because of her cancer, could not find an insurer willing to write her a policy. President Obama's health-care law, she said, will make it illegal to deny coverage to people like her.

Republican women who did speak up seemed focused on using free-market principles to spur the economy, upholding conservative religious beliefs, or just plain evicting the current White House occupant.

"I have a lot of friends who say they are in the ABO party," said Karen List, a 12-year cancer survivor. "That's 'Anybody But Obama.' "

The most recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Florida's Republican women favoring Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, over Gingrich, the former House speaker, 40 percent to 30 percent. Libertarian Ron Paul was in third place among GOP women, and slightly ahead of Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator.

Generally, polls have found, Florida Republicans are less likely to be social conservatives or evangelical Christians than their counterparts in the first two GOP contests, Iowa and New Hampshire. Many women here say they're willing to overlook Gingrich's admissions of past marital misbehavior. They reason that whatever reservations they might have are less important than concerns about electing someone who can fix the economy.

Susan George, whose cancer was diagnosed in October and recently underwent radiation and chemotherapy, said she opposed what she considered Obama's intrusive government. Wearing a scarf with the symbolic pink ribbon pattern, George said that even though there were aspects of the Obama-backed health-care legislation that might benefit her, she was opposed to it on principle.

"In a country that is supposedly free," she said, "it's wrong to force people to buy insurance."

George, 42, the executive director of a retirement community, said she was voting for Paul. "I don't care for any of the other candidates. They're not interested in making America better." And on issues such as abortion rights? "They're not my priority."

By contrast, self-described possible Gingrich supporter Janice Smith, 29, said her main concerns were health care and reversing Roe v. Wade.

"I am a Christian, and I don't believe there should be any abortions," she said. Pregnant with her fifth child, Smith, who hails from Stuart, Fla., a little ways up the coast from here, said she feared Obama's health-care policies would wind up reducing Medicare payments.

"I haven't decided who to vote for yet," said Smith, who came to the race with her husband and four children in tow. "But I do like Newt. He gets heated when he talks about same-sex marriage and pro-life."

She also believes Gingrich will provide the most muscular foreign policy. "My best friend just lost her brother. He was a SEAL in the helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan. I know how hard the troops fight for the Christian conservatives. It's pretty much a religious war there, even though the politicians don't want to say that."

The largest contingent of Republican women voters in this part of South Florida may be those who belong to the unofficial splinter group that List's friends have dubbed "the ABO party."

List, who described her occupation as "professional volunteer," said even Democrats she knows are "jumping ship."

"People are so frustrated," she said. "They aren't thinking about individual candidates or their comments. They just want change."

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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