Democratic race may come down to the bar

For gubernatorial hopefuls, little things like open bars make big impressions at the state party's conference.

Published December 9, 2005

Open bar or cash bar?

When the history of Florida's 2006 governor's race is written, this may prove to be a pivotal question.

The word is out among more than 2,000 Democratic activists who are gathering today at Walt Disney World to size up candidates for state and national office: Gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jim Davis will have limited drink tickets available at his welcoming reception tonight, but state Sen. Rod Smith has an open bar.

Guess who'll have a bigger crowd.

Nutty as it may sound, some political professionals insist such differences could matter profoundly. A full bore campaign is raging between Davis of Tampa and Smith of Alachua, and nearly a year before Election Day it has little to do with normal Floridians.

This is a ferocious fight to win over a sliver of the electorate, and it's being fought at a time when perception can matter more than reality. If it looks like party activists are gravitating to Smith over Davis, then word will spread that Smith is generating excitement. Perception drives early fundraising, and money drives statewide races.

"Perception is driven as much by the holding of signs, the wearing of T-shirts and amount of visible activity as anything," said Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh.

That helps explain this weekend's strange Florida ritual.

The state Democratic Party holds its annual conference this weekend, where little official business is conducted but thousands gather anyway. In the war over perception among early campaigns, the conference can be as influential a battlefield as Waterloo.

Rorapaugh knows that better than most. In 2002, he managed Bill McBride's come-from-nowhere gubernatorial primary upset of Janet Reno. At a time when most Floridians had never heard of McBride, Rorapaugh and the teachers unions organized the conference so it looked like a tidal wave of rank-and-file support for McBride.

"The opinion leaders attend these conferences," Rorapaugh said. "They can each affect 200 votes with what they say back home, and this early in the game people at the conference are watching and trying to decide who's got the organization to win."

Cash-strapped Democrats, especially Smith and Davis, will spend vast energy and tens of thousands of dollars on an exercise that could prove utterly meaningless: phone banks to poll and survey conferencegoers; speech coaches; hospitality suites; slick videos; breathless planning of their introductions, their entrances, their theme music.

Perhaps tellingly, the Florida GOP hasn't bothered with such extravagance for years. They hold quarterly meetings, largely closed to the media, but the state Republican Party has concluded big conferences are not worth the effort.

"Our focus is really on doing business and not on having this big show," state executive director Andy Palmer said of Republican gatherings. "And I think our strategy is working."

Modern Florida history is loaded with Democratic candidates who looked strong at the state Democratic conference and wound up as political footnotes. People in 1989 who watched Orlando state Sen. George Stuart's slick video featuring rock singer Corey Hart's Never Surrender anthem say that for 10 minutes Stuart looked like a shoo-in to be governor.

Still, nobody wants to risk botching the perceptions game.

"Worse than spending a lot of money and then having a positive mention of your campaign in the the sixth (paragraph) of a story would be a negative mention in the first graph," said Tony Welch, a veteran Democratic consultant.

The Democratic primary features two moderate candidates who have never before run statewide and are little-known to most of the electorate. Polls show roughly half the Democratic voters are undecided, and neither candidate is far out front in fundraising.

Both candidates are spending at least 25 hours a week phoning for campaign dollars, and both have started a grueling campaign pace far earlier than any previous statewide candidates. Smith this week has been tied up with a special legislative session, but last week he was in Jacksonville, Dade City, Tampa and Orlando, as well as Columbia, Jackson, Leon, Broward, Monroe and Alachua counties.

Davis this week has been to Sarasota, Miami, Palatka, Orlando, Pensacola, Destin and Washington.

By most objective measures, the Democratic race is wide open. But in terms of the perception war, Davis has been making big strides.

Former state Democratic chairman Scott Maddox, a favorite of many South Florida liberals, dropped out in October and endorsed Davis. A poll released in November undercut Smith's contention that he has broader appeal because it found Davis tied or leading both Republicans, Attorney General Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, in head-to-head races.

Davis has earned more uniformly positive news coverage, and his campaign has periodically rolled out notable (if irrelevant to most voters) endorsements such as former North Florida Rep. Pete Peterson and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland. Civil rights pioneer and Georgia Rep. John Lewis is set to endorse Davis on Saturday.

"Both campaigns are working hard, waging block to block, city commissioner to city commissioner, fire board member to fire board member kinds of campaigns," said Derek Newton, a Miami-based Democratic consultant. "There are a lot of undecideds out there, but based on the consistent news Jim Davis has been able to generate, it seems he has more momentum."

Nonsense, say Smith allies.

"This is only '05. Once we hit '06, things happen fast and furious," said Screven Watson, a former state party executive director advising the Smith campaign. "One will either outdistance the other, or you'll see that it'll be a dogfight until the end like Reno-McBride."

Hoping to build an impression of momentum heading into the conference, the Smith campaign chose this week to unveil endorsements it has long known about: the Florida Police Benevolent Association and Florida Fraternal Order of Police.

When he addresses the biggest crowd of his political career Saturday, Smith will be introduced by former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and also a woman who was the victim of a stabbing. A former prosecutor and one of the best orators in the Legislature, Smith may have an advantage over Davis in his ability to rev up the crowd.

Davis has developed a reputation as a weak speaker, though observers say he is improving. In addition, the person introducing him at the conference might also remind activists that charisma is not always necessary to winning Florida. Former Sen. Bob Graham will make the introduction.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com


The 2005 Democratic Party Conference, today through Sunday at Walt Disney World.

What is it? An annual gathering of more than 2,000 Democrats, where national and state candidates converge to court party activists.

What do they do? Party leaders and campaign professionals conduct training sessions and executive committee meetings are held. But the main events are the high-profile speeches and candidate receptions. At one time, the party staged nonbinding "straw votes" to measure candidate support among activists, but that ate up too much campaign money.

Why do it? The state party can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at the events, plus candidates get exposure and activists get fired up. As a key battleground state, national candidates often relish the chance to mingle with Florida activists and donors.

What about the Republicans? In recent years the state GOP has foregone big state conferences, concluding that they are not worth the effort. With full control of state government, Republicans hardly lack opportunities for exposure. Instead, the Florida Republican Party holds smaller quarterly meetings, which typically draw about 200 people.