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In seat belts and at speeches, Smith's family is by his side

Traveling by RV, the candidate's campaign clan isn't tired of each other, though the toddler tunes are wearing thin.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
Published July 24, 2006


On the inside of the giant blue RV emblazoned with a red and white "Rod Smith" that wove through heavy South Florida traffic, the Wiggles (on DVD) sang from a laptop to the candidate's 14-month-old granddaughter, who, after 1,100 miles, was eager to escape the prison straps of a car seat.

Smith, a Democratic candidate for governor, was deep in a strategy conversation, wedged into a two-seat booth along with two campaign staffers and a colleague.

His wife, son, daughter and son-in-law sat on leather-cushioned seats, bantering softly with other staffers and playing with giggling baby Hannah Grace "Gracie" Glover.

Five of six family members joined the candidate in his three-day "Straight Talk" tour last week, which started in Gainesville and ended in Fort Lauderdale.

The family spent most of the time in a borrowed (from a cousin) and often warm 39-foot RV, whose chugging air conditioner drizzled condensation from the ceiling.

"For three days and for three nights we've been in a bus together, and we're still getting along," Smith announced to great applause at his 20th and final stop Thursday evening to about 75 Fort Lauderdale Democrats at a firefighter union hall that smelled of years of cigarette smoke.

While it's not uncommon for gubernatorial candidates to travel and campaign with their spouses, Smith has spent more time than any other candidate on the trail alongside his entire family. In the RV: his wife, Dee Dee, daughter Alison Glover, 32, son-in-law Graham Glover, 31, Gracie Glover, 14 months, and son Dylan, 19. Only son Jesse, 25, a law school graduate who was studying for the Florida Bar exam, didn't make the trip.

And they don't just stand around and watch Dad give his stump speech. All three of his children, and his son-in-law, have given speeches, too. At events, they work the crowd, as Graham Glover did during an unplanned stop at a Pensacola diner called the Coffee Cup. While the regulars munched on bacon and cheese grits, Glover shook a few hands and chatted with them.

In Cocoa, when a handful of Republicans arrived to protest a Smith speech bearing signs that read "Rod Smith=Abortion" and "No New Taxes," Graham Glover and Dylan Smith walked across the street to engage the enemy. "Can you stick around?" Glover asked the handful of protesters, "because (Rod Smith) is giving a speech right now, but I'm sure he'd like to come out and talk with you."

The protesters didn't stay.

By contrast, Smith's opponent in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, has largely protected his teenage sons from the public. Republican candidate Tom Gallagher's wife is involved in the campaign and 7-year-old son Charlie has appeared at some events and is featured on a television commercial. Republican Charlie Crist is divorced, after a short marriage with no children.

Smith's wife, Dee Dee, a lawyer who specializes in child advocacy law, was the campaign's first financial manager. While her husband was busy with the legislative session, she picked up the slack, giving speeches and visiting with Democratic and civic clubs.

"Most of you know I married over my head," Smith says in his speeches. "While most people don't know whether or not I'd be a good governor, everyone agrees Dee Dee would make a great first lady."

Dylan and Jesse Smith often drive their dad to political events. And Jesse has given several speeches, including one to a group in Volusia County with 50 or 60 attendees.

"I'm not near the speaker he is, but I just try to speak on his behalf and say what he would say," Jesse Smith said.

Smith's daughter, Alison, and her husband run the Gainesville campaign headquarters and also make appearances. She is the only family member on the Smith campaign payroll, as a scheduler.

Dylan Smith says he just does whatever is asked of him. With one exception: "At this point in my life, I'm not comfortable with asking people for money," said the University of Florida sophomore.

Part of their duty is keeping their dad's spirits up, talking to him about sports or something other than politics, when, say, he's having a bad fundraising day.

And, of course, his kids are an integral part of Rod Smith's stump speech, heavy on the humor. "My kids get to choose to go to any school they want, but the check goes to University of Florida," Smith said at one campaign stop. The line is designed to tease Jesse Smith, who got his undergraduate degree at University of Florida but graduated in May from the University of Maryland law school.

Life in the RV was pretty normal for a big family traveling in cramped quarters. A few arguments, but nothing serious, Dee Dee said. Dylan admitted to getting pretty sick of the Wiggles.

The family agreed that the toughest part about campaigning is dealing with campaign attacks, criticisms and negative media. They don't mind the when the focus is on disputes of politics or policy; it's the personal stuff that bothers them.

For example, at the beginning of Rod Smith's first run for nearly every office, including this race, the media or an opponent raises once again a child-support dispute Smith had with his ex-wife over Jesse.

"It's so frustrating," Alison Glover said. "Why don't they just stick to his record?"

Jesse Smith agreed. He said he hates to read Web sites or stories that are critical of his dad's character, because he wants to defend him, but he has to hold his tongue.

"I understand it's one of the sacrifices you make when you run for office," Jesse Smith said. "You open yourself to the whole state of Florida. But the whole state of Florida doesn't know my father or my family, and they don't really know what they're talking about."

[Last modified July 24, 2006, 05:19:32]


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