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Jim Davis can't shake Rod Smith

Published May 22, 2006

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis for months has cast himself as the inevitable Democratic nominee for governor, the guy leading in early polls and fundraising, and winning the backing of Democratic giants like former Sen. Bob Graham.

Davis may be the frontrunner, but his mantle of inevitability is looking increasingly thin. All the momentum in recent months has been with state Sen. Rod Smith, whom Davis has been unable to shake. Consider:

Smith is far outpacing Davis in labor endorsements, a potential force in Democratic primaries. By all accounts, Smith would have won full endorsements from the teachers union and state AFL-CIO had those unions not changed their rules to require 2/3 support for an endorsement.

Some local affiliates will still push hard for Smith.

Smith so far has nearly kept pace with Davis in money-raising, despite losing crucial fundraising weeks because rules bar lawmakers from raising money during the legislative session. Through March 31, Davis had raised $2.2-million to Smith's $1.9-million.

Smith repeatedly outshines Davis in joint appearances. When all the major Democrats and Republicans appear together, the homespun former prosecutor invariably stands out among the field. Republican strategists consistently peg Smith as the bigger threat in the general election against Republicans Attorney General Charlie Crist or Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher. They cite his charisma and potentially broad-based appeal.

The latest sign that Smith might break out of his underdog standing came Monday, when won support from a pair of congressmen representing the cultural opposites of Florida's Democratic Party. Endorsing the opponent of their Congressional colleague were Monticello's Allen Boyd, a conservative Democrat and member of a longtime Florida agricultural family, and Miami's Kendrick Meek, the politically-talented son of former

U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, the first black woman to serve in the Florida Senate.

"In this state I think time after time, Floridians have voted for the leader. They voted for leadership when they elected Lawton Chiles...Jeb Bush," said Meek, one of the most influential Democrats in Florida. "I think this time they will vote for leadership and I know the conclusion will be that it's Rod Smith."

To be sure, Smith still has a major hurdle to win the Democratic primary: geography. Davis's home base is Tampa Bay, which represents about one in four votes in the primary. Smith's home base, the Gainesville area, represents a fraction of that.

Davis allies say Smith is boxed out by the electoral math. Smith's last and best hope they suggest was winning two thirds support of the teachers union and AFL-CIO to get full endorsements. The FEA wound up giving a dual endorsement while the AFL-CIO is staying neutral.

"Rod Smith, from Florida's smallest media market, is locked in a frustrating search for a base of support against a candidate from the largest media market in the state. In the last 10 days, the teachers' union and the AFL-CIO, despite Rod's feverish campaigning, declined to give him an exclusive endorsement," said Josh Earnest, Davis' communications director. "Now, with only 14 weeks until Election Day, the Smith campaign is still searching for a base of support and a believeable path to victory."

But it's a reflection of Davis' difficulty lately that his biggest political victory recently was helping block major Democratic leaning unions from backing Smith outright.

Screven Watson, an adviser to Smith, pitched the choice as "breath of fresh air versus more of the same" and likened Davis to the Democrats' 1998 nominee, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay. "If Rod Smith weren't in this race, you'd have people saying just what they were saying about Buddy in '98: "Nice man, would make a good governor, and we're going to lose by 10 points.' "

Polls show Davis leading Smith among Democratic voters, and usually well ahead. But they also show at least half of the Democrats undecided, and by some estimates at least three quarters have yet to make up their minds.

"South Florida's going to be a very important piece of the puzzle," said Fred Yang, Smith's pollster. "We're going to have to run a smarter and more aggressive campaign than (Davis) does down there."

Democratic strategist Robin Rorapaugh, said the behind-the-scenes campaigning so far has been old-school versus new. Smith is relying heavily on what's left of South Florida's labor driven machine politics, while Davis has had volunteer phone banks working hard.

Though the legislative session cost Smith 60 days of fundraising, it also brought him widespread attention among political insiders for his skill in putting together bi-partisan coalitions. Democrats and Republicans alike said he played a pivital role in torpedoing such Jeb Bush priorities as diluting the class size amendment and giving consitutional protection to school vouchers.

"Some people wanted to throw a knockout punch by saying, "Well, look where the polls are.' Where was Bob Graham in the early polls? Where was Lawton Chiles," Smith said in a phone interview Monday. "I've never had my phone calls received as well (as they are now). I've actually had people I've asked (for donations) say, "Well Rodthink I can do bettter than that. Trust me, that wasn't the case a year ago."

Davis has plenty of big endorsements himself, including most of the Democratic congressional delegation, former Sen. Graham, and former first lady Rhea Chiles. But despite that old line support and the early polls, recent weeks suggest the Democratic race for governor is far from settled.

"Especiallly on the Democratic side, I don't think the people of Florida have a good handle on either candidate," said Rep. Boyd, in announcing his endorsement of Smith. "It's okay to have a good spirited primary, and I think we'll definitely see that."

Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or

[Last modified May 22, 2006, 22:21:07]

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