If laughs were votes ...

Rod Smith’s quips perk up audiences. Will they do the same for his poll numbers?

Published June 28, 2006

Four gubernatorial candidates walk into a banquet hall …

… And if any of them can come up with a punch line to that setup, it’s Democrat Rod “Shecky” Smith, the king of one-liners on the campaign trail.

The former prosecutor and state senator from Alachua may be an underdog in the race to succeed Jeb Bush, but he’s a runaway winner in generating yucks.

“I read the list out front,” he said recently at a gathering of corporate executives on the Florida Council of 100. “For a Democrat, this is a road game. So for the three primary voters I recognize here, my goal is to edge the other guy two-to-one.”

The room exploded in laughter. When Democratic rival Jim Davis showed up at the tail end of the forum, Smith reassured him in his sharp twang: “I answered for you.”

Take my primary opponent — please!

For the reporters and campaign staffers who see these men who would be governor talk to crowds often, it’s getting to be part of a ritual — Smith consistently providing the laugh lines, and Davis and Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher politely chuckling along.

“Here we go again, Rod Smith’s 'Night at the Improv,’” one Republican campaign worker sniffed at the start of a candidate forum recently.

“Thank you so much. It is great to be here,” Smith told a conference of Florida Realtors this year. “I got in last night about midnight, and I know you were having a ball, literally having a ball. I saw several of you as you were leaving. And the ones I saw leaving are clearly not going to be with us this morning!”


Students of the comedy stylings of Sen. Smith know the moldy oldies. They tend to be the self-effacing jokes about how few people had heard of him.

“When I got into this race last year, the first poll had me at 4 percent. What was daunting was that the margin of error was 5.”

Or the one about the lady in a rural county who introduced him as the next governor of Florida — Rod Stewart. Or the other woman, who touted his background as a prosecutor and said Smith was the guy who promoted serial killer Danny Rolling. Prosecuted! Smith corrected.

There are the musings about his tiny hometown, Alachua. Even when a baby’s born, he says, the town  doesn’t grow because someone else moves away or dies.

“The town of Alachua is so small that I tell folks all the time that we have a weekly newspaper and its readership is always greatest when we have a divorce notice involving the sale of a bass boat.”

Smith regularly throws in what appear to be off-the-cuff remarks.

Asked about global warming at a St. Petersburg forum last week, Davis noted he’s not a scientist, but went on to describe his concerns about politicizing the science. Then came the rapid-talking Smith: “I’m not a scientist, but I’ve stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. I absolutely believe global warming is a huge problem for this country.”

A day later, a forum moderator asked Smith why Democrats keep losing in Florida. Smith started to allude to the thoughtful letter John Adams wrote after losing his re-election campaign.

“Most of the letters you write after losing are pretty thoughtful,” he said as an aside, and then turned to Davis.

“And I hope you get to write one.”

The warmer jokes often refer to his “gifted” first grandchild, less than a year old. “Let me tell you, if I’d known about grandchildren, I would’ve skipped children.”

The humor usually helps Smith, often the least-known candidate for governor, stand out at joint appearances. But he risks overkill at times, and not everybody finds the standup routine appealing when he’s talking about serious public policy issues.

“I’ve been telling people if you haven’t received your insurance bill yet, you need to get Maalox or liquor or both,” he told several hundred people gathered for a Leadership Florida forum in Orlando Saturday.

Cathy Martin, an undecided St. Petersburg Republican who is open to voting Democratic, said Smith’s performance seemed disrespectful for a serious policy forum.

“Relentlessly glib,” is how she described him, wondering how that style can bring people together.

Then again, Lad Daniels, a Republican member of the Jacksonville City Council who was at the same forum, said he and his wife thought Smith was the best. His intellect showed through, Crist supporter Daniels said, but the jokes and relaxed style made him the most appealing.

In his farewell address on the floor of the Senate, Smith spoke warmly of several close Republican friends, including state Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville. And, of course, he cracked wise: “My memories will always be that he cost me seven years of my liver,’’ Smith said of the time he spent with the former Senate president.

That bad-boy theme is consistent when the Smith act is on the road, and sometimes presents a contrast with Davis’ earnest, do-gooder style.

“I was asked in Pasco County, 'Were you an inspired student?’ The girl I copied off of was an uninspired student,” Smith likes to say.

In a state where a hefty segment of the South Florida electorate actually remembers Borscht Belt comedians, Smith’s approach could help.

He gets the laughs. Come primary day Sept. 5, we’ll see whether, unlike Rodney Dangerfield, he gets the respect.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.