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Election 2004

Todd retains her optimism in daunting Senate field

Poll numbers are low. Names are big. Still, she thinks there's a chance.

By MICHAEL SANDLER
Published December 13, 2003

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd has seen the unflattering poll numbers.

In Florida, this month's St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll shows that 1 percent of Republican voters support her for the U.S. Senate. In her home county of Pinellas, just 11 percent back her.

Todd also has heard the rumblings among GOP activists. The White House wants Mel Martinez, who resigned as U.S. housing secretary this week to prepare for his campaign.

People call Todd's campaign a long shot, at best - and these are her friends. When Martinez enters the race, some say they will advise her to get out.

"If I were a political adviser, it would be tough," said Bob Stewart, a friend and colleague on the Pinellas County Commission. "I think the more people who get in the Republican primary, the better her chances. ... if I were the chairman of the Republican Party, I would want to have a female in the race. It's a long shot, at best."

What does Todd have to say about giving up?

"I'd have to say, "Why?' " Todd said. "Why would they want me to get out when I'm probably one of the only hopes to win the seat?"

That defiance has Todd, who has served nearly two decades on the Pinellas County Commission, leaning toward joining the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.

Todd does not dismiss the naysayers. She says she doesn't expect to lead opinion polls. She hasn't held a fundraiser yet although it takes millions of dollars to run a credible statewide campaign. She's quick to note that former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Orlando, one of the Republican candidates, has been campaigning for two years.

She also concedes that she hasn't made up her mind. Todd has been exploring her chances since June, when she first hinted at a run. She expects to assess the field, assemble a campaign team and make a decision in January.

Todd is certain, however, that a moderate woman who campaigns hard will stand the best chance of beating former education commissioner and University of South Florida president Betty Castor, the current favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

"I know I have to get my story out," Todd said. "But I believe when people know what I can do, and see the vision I have, they will support me. And I believe I can win in a general election."

Should Todd enter the race, she plans to hire Greg Graves, a national political consultant based in New Mexico.

Graves worked on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. He ran an unsuccessful 1988 U.S. Senate campaign in Texas for former U.S. Rep. Beau Boulter, who lost to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.

Graves said he and Todd are working out a potential agreement. But Graves thinks Todd would have a good chance because she would stand out in the field of conservative Republican men, including Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, state Sen. Dan Webster of Orlando and McCollum.

Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party, said Todd has some positive attributes.

"She's a woman, fiscally conservative and socially moderate," Bedinghaus said. "Whether or not that's enough to overcome a late start and (limited) name recognition, that's to be seen."

Some of Todd's closest advisers say she has a strong message, citing the various boards she has served on and leadership roles she has held. But can a presidential appointment to the U.S. Advisory Council on Intergovernmental Relations match being described as a former member of Congress, the current state House speaker or a former member of the president's Cabinet?

"There is support," said Michael Van Butsel, a local businessman who has volunteered to help Todd raise money. "I believe the challenge is that Barbara has held some very prestigious statewide and national leadership roles that most of the citizens in the local community aren't aware of."

Nick Kotaiche, an old family friend, was among a small group of colleagues who approached her earlier this year and suggested she run. Since then, he has been helping raise money and says he has commitments of $750,000.

Kotaiche counts himself among Todd's most loyal supporters. But he doesn't like her chances with Martinez joining the race. Neither does Van Butsel, who called Martinez the strongest candidate.

"How can you fight the White House?" Kotaiche said. "That would be my advice to her, to fold the campaign."

That wouldn't be the first time people told Todd she had no chance of winning.

As a mother in her 20s with no political experience, she ran for the School Board against a veteran Democrat in Leon County, where there had not been a Republican board member in generations.

But after fighting to obtain bus service for underprivileged children, Todd felt a political fire that ultimately proved enough to win that election. That same fire has her on the cusp of entering a race few say she can win.

"I haven't gotten into the race, so I'm not going to say if I'm a long shot, at best," Todd said. "We are going to assess. But I do believe it is going to take a strong, moderate woman to win."

[Last modified December 13, 2003, 05:27:01]


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