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Sanchez's campaign is a climb up the curve

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003

The man in the dry cleaning store had a man's mostly pressed shirt draped over a mannequin. With one long tube he waved a water-filled hose over the shirt. Water would get out the last tiny wrinkles. Then, he swiftly pulled the shirt off the mannequin -- without disturbing the perfect press -- and hung it up so it could be bagged and sent out.

In the midst of this Wednesday, Frank Sanchez introduced himself and asked for the man's vote.

Then he stepped back and admired the man's work. "Wow," Sanchez said. "I'd never seen that done before."

The moment was emblematic. His entire campaign for mayor has been like this, a climb up the learning curve, mostly involving what he should say and what he shouldn't. Sanchez, who has never before run for office, has been repeatedly accused of waffling on his views, a charge meant to suggest that he's got no backbone or is quite willing to pander to whomever he's speaking.

Mayor Dick Greco was closer to the truth. He told the Tampa Tribune that he thinks Sanchez "wants it so badly for people to understand his inner feelings, he sometimes explains too much."

I like what Greco said because it gets to the goodness in the guy. Sanchez is so earnest he hurts himself -- although he is now getting smart enough to put his weakness to use. On Wednesday, at an early morning forum, he tried to draw the good out of the bad. "I'm not an entrenched or calculating politician," he said. "I do bring a fresh perspective."

This pitch will work on some people. It did with Everett Baker, the owner of an optic shop a few doors down from the dry cleaner in Britton Plaza where Sanchez stopped after the forum.

"The rest of the candidates have been around. It's the same old, same old," he said.

But who knows how many Everett Bakers there are in Tampa? Sanchez has more basic problems.

The first is that, even though many powerful people have lined up to support him, people of plainer stripe may still have no clue who Sanchez is.

His campaign funds -- at $701,000, more than anybody else, ever, in the race for mayor -- have gone into TV ads to get his name known. I have seen some of those ads and their most telling element is how flat and unremarkable they are. They turned a Harvard-educated, world-traveled hometown success story into a nobody, a feat by any standard.

Sanchez's other problem is that he shares some good qualities, like his intelligence and his commitment, with two of his competitors, Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn. He has yet to find a way to distinguish himself from the others, beyond what those pesky reporters say he has done wrong.

"I've realized I have to be more precise with my words," Sanchez said in a brief moment Wednesday. And I do mean brief. I met up with him for an early morning forum, and after it ended around 10 a.m., Sanchez offered to meet me for coffee and a 15-minute chat. His driver nixed it. They had to go to Britton Plaza, he said. So 15 minutes became five.

Then, after the brief tour of the shopping center, Sanchez was headed back to his office. I wanted to follow and talk some more. That was also nixed. He had to prepare for another forum at lunch.

The man has gone to forum after forum. The candidates joke about repeating each other. And Frank Sanchez needs to prepare even more?

It was true that Sanchez offered to try again to meet after the lunchtime forum, but by then I had to be writing. He seemed genuinely apologetic that things didn't work out.

I would leave matters there, but I'm not sure I should. It felt a little like his people didn't want Sanchez one on one with me, as though they feared I would somehow trip him up on his own words and he would say the wrong thing and be forced to take still another step up that learning curve.

The Sanchez people will call this ridiculous. And it could be. Or not.

-- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or (813) 226-3402.

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