McBride supporters sweat over slow start
By WES ALLISON and ADAM C. SMITH
TAMPA -- Bill McBride's campaign manager could picture the headlines Janet Reno would get this weekend traveling the state with actor Martin Sheen.
"I'm not looking forward to all those phone calls Monday morning," Robin Rorapaugh said.
The calls were easy to predict because she hears the complaints often: Where's McBride? When's he going to do something?
The foot soldiers are getting nervous. Three months before the Sept. 10 Democratic primary for governor, McBride supporters across Florida are fretting that whatever early momentum their man had is being crushed by Reno's celebrity.
Her swing through South Florida, Orlando and Tampa with Sheen didn't help. Polls show her leading by as much as 30 points.
"I'm very worried. Terribly worried," said Sylvia Wolfe-Herman of Delray Beach, a McBride supporter and vice president of the United South County Democratic Club, the state's largest. "I put myself on the limb. My president has put himself out on the limb. So we don't want to be disappointed.
"They've got to see him on television, or they've got to see him around. Much more."
Harvey Morgenstein, president of the Greater Pinellas Democratic Club, where McBride has many supporters, hears similar complaints from his cohorts. He doesn't know how to answer them.
"He's just so unknown by the rank and file Democrats, and how he can overcome that, I don't know," Morgenstein said.
Bob Martinez, the last gubernatorial candidate from Tampa, launched his ad campaign in March 1986 and went on to become the second Republican governor since Reconstruction. By this time in 1990 -- the year of the last real Democratic gubernatorial primary -- Bill Nelson had spent $1.5-million on TV spots to fight Lawton Chiles' lead. That's more money than McBride has reported raising to date, although in those campaigns candidates aiming for public matching money did not have to abide by spending caps.
McBride's campaign says, be patient. Only political junkies pay attention in June. Let's not squander precious dollars.
"July and August is when you get your name recognition," said McBride, seemingly stunned that some supporters were worried. "I'm not too concerned about it. We've tried very hard to build an organization and campaign that's going to peak in August, and I feel very comfortable with where we are now."
Once TV ads start, his campaign says, McBride's name recognition will soar and Democratic voters will see they have a strong alternative to Reno.
"You can't play the game before the fans are in the stands, and the voters don't start paying attention until four or five weeks before the election," said David Doak, a Washington consultant to McBride.
Jim Krog, a veteran Democratic operative who says he is neutral in this race, agreed. The early summer doldrums can be tough on a campaign, he said.
"You're just having to slug it out with the feeling that nobody's listening," said Krog, who ran Lawton Chiles' gubernatorial campaigns. "This is the point where your most loyal supporters, those who have been with you longest and really care about you, go into panic mode."
A little-known underdog like McBride, however, can get trapped in a vicious cycle: He needs to raise money for TV spots to boost his name recognition. But without the name recognition and poll numbers to prove he's viable, major fundraisers and donors are reluctant to give.
The waiting may be agonizing for supporters, but consultants say it's the only way.
"The biggest mistake any candidate can make is to go up on television and then go dark, because you'll lose everything you gained," said Karl Koch, a Tampa consultant to the Florida Democratic Party.
"Once you go up, you have to stay up. Anything they would do now to appease those people who are crying for early television would be lost, once they went dark."
Buzz is important in politics because it generates excitement and money. The buzz around McBride peaked after April's Democratic convention in Orlando, when McBride supporters overwhelmed the hall.
McBride, 57, is the former head of Florida's biggest law firm and is making his first run for office. His primary opponent is Reno, the former U.S. attorney general who has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live. She has huge name recognition. McBride, by contrast, is unknown to 54 percent of voters, according to a March St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll. A big part of the McBride strategy is to beat Reno in Central and North Florida, but even in his home county of Hillsborough, nearly half the voters have never heard of him. Martinez, in contrast, had built a firm base as mayor of Tampa. The other Democratic candidate for governor, state Sen. Daryl Jones, has shown even less momentum than McBride.
McBride has done little in recent months to change the standings: no advertising, few rallies, no Reno-style campaign gimmicks. He won some attention last month by releasing a plan to spend an extra $1-billion a year to cut school class sizes and boost teacher pay.
But news coverage has been sluggish, especially compared with Reno, whose celebrity makes her a publicity magnet. She was first to criticize Bush for his handling of problems at the state Department of Children and Families, and then to offer specific ideas for addressing them.
In recent weeks, Reno's campaign contends, McBride has been trying to show up at Reno events to steal her media attention.
The McBride campaign dismissed that, but Rorapaugh, McBride's campaign manager, said Reno had frequently canceled events when she found out that McBride would be there. At least one-third of the state's Democratic voters live in the South Florida counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, Reno's home turf. McBride has courted party activists there. Last week, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez endorsed him.
But Wolfe-Herman, the vice president of the United South County Democratic Club, said, "He's got to get to the people who are Mr. and Mrs. Public . . ."
Reno and McBride hold similar views on core Democratic issues, including abortion, workers' rights and education. That makes it harder for him to distinguish himself from her. McBride calls himself a huge admirer of Reno and insists he won't attack her personally; on the campaign trail, he hardly mentions her. To win the primary, the business leader and decorated Vietnam veteran must convince Democratic voters that he offers the party its best chance at defeating Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Jay Weitz, president of the Democratic Club of Greater Boynton, in Palm Beach, supports McBride and said he knew persuading others to support him would be slow going. He didn't think it would be this slow.
"Name recognition is a factor," he said. "But most of us felt in this area that by this time, he would be attacking the entire subject a little bit harder than we see him doing right now."
At a recent gathering Reno held in Land O'Lakes, several attendees said they were open to McBride but need to hear more from him. Others didn't know who he was.
"He needs to get on TV more," said Barbara Phillips, a teacher and McBride supporter who attended the Reno forum with her husband, Richard. "He needs to come to more public events, to be there and be seen."
Six weeks of ads in South Florida alone costs about $1.5-million -- more than McBride has reported raising to date. McBride, who is wealthy, is considering lending his campaign money to pay for TV advertising in July.
"We were told that it's coming," Weitz said. "But, like they say, so is Christmas."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire