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Electoral math hurts Smith's primary chance

The candidate for governor has many strengths and a handicap: His rival has a better shot at Tampa Bay area votes.

Published August 4, 2006

Rod Smith could overcome Jim Davis' home advantage by doing well in North Florida, analysts say.
The Tampa Bay region represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Davis holds nearly one in four primary voters.

Rod Smith is the only Democrat airing TV ads promoting his campaign for governor. Many Republicans fear his candidacy, and polls generally show his primary race wide open with a huge number of undecided voters.

But the biggest obstacle to Smith winning the gubernatorial nomination boils down to two words: Tampa Bay.

The region that Democratic frontrunner Jim Davis has represented in Congress for 10 years, and for eight more in the Florida Legislature, holds nearly one in four primary voters. State Sen. Smith's Gainesville-area base represents barely 3 percent of primary voters.

The electoral math is simple. If each candidate wins 60 percent of the vote in their home turf, and they tie everywhere else, Davis wins the election by some 52,000 votes. That assumes turnout of about 34 percent, comparable to the last Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2002, but turnout may well be lighter given the low profile of the candidates.

Smith, a former prosecutor with a homespun style, touts his strength in North Florida. So give him 55 percent of the North Florida primary vote 60 percent around Gainesville and assume he and Davis tie everywhere else but their home bases. Davis still wins by some 25,000 votes.

There are numerous scenarios, but they all point to Smith needing to make up lots of ground elsewhere in the state to get past the Davis leg- up in the Tampa Bay area. With less than three weeks before early voting starts, and five weeks before primary day, Smith has a lot of work to do.

"All things being equal, the Tampa Bay candidate definitely has the advantage. The area with a larger block of votes is South Florida, and neither of the candidates is well-known there," said Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who managed Bill McBride's upset of Janet Reno in the 2002 primary.

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said that despite Davis' geographic upper hand, Smith can overcome it. North Florida may be a conservative part of the state, but it also produces historically heavy turnout in Democratic primaries.

"Rod Smith has to win in North Florida, get in the 30s or 40s in Tampa, win in Orlando or West Palm Beach and draw the rest," said Beattie, who is not connected to either candidate. "North Florida, if he wins there by big enough margins, is enough to cancel out Tampa."

Smith winning big in North Florida is no sure thing, however. The region includes five TV markets, and a Gainesville senator is not necessarily familiar to voters in Jacksonville or Pensacola. The primary battle is most visible in southeast Florida. Smith is renting a house and basing his campaign in Broward County. He is spending much of his time campaigning there, too.

"Rod's strategy was to make Palm Beach part of his base," Davis said Thursday. "I'm doing very well in Palm Beach. ... I'm making very good headway down there (in South Florida)."

In 2002 Reno won nearly two out of three votes in southeast Florida. Yet she still lost to McBride, who won the Tampa Bay area with 53 percent, North Florida with 55 percent and the Orlando area by 51 percent.

Davis supporters are hoping his Tampa Bay advantage will be even stronger this year, as a crowded field of candidates drives up turnout in his district. In a 2004 U.S. Senate primary, Betty Castor of Tampa won 72 percent of the vote in the Tampa Bay area.

Recent polls have shown Davis leading Smith from 15 to 28 percentage points, but with as many as 57 percent of Democrats undecided. A July 24-25 McLaughlin & Associates poll of 271 Democrats for Associated Industries of Florida found Davis leading Smith 25 percent to 11 percent, and 64 percent undecided. That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

"I think the polls are accurate - most people don't know Rod Smith or Jim Davis. Slightly more people know Jim Davis because he's from a Tampa base," said Smith. "Resource-wise, I'm very pleased at where we are. I think we're going to be able to make this a very competitive race, and I'm as convinced now as I've ever been that we're going to win the primary."

With neither Democrat showing signs of momentum lately, Smith needs to shake up the race to catch Davis. A week ago, he started trying to do just that by airing the first TV ads of the Democratic primary.

After hiring a well-known Pennsylvania media firm to handle his ads, Smith wound up turning the work over to Stan Adkins, a South Florida consultant who worked on Smith's first state Senate campaign. The unconventional spots (one features Smith talking about insurance beside a loud helicopter) have drawn mixed reviews. But Smith has been the only candidate advertising on TV for at least a week.

"We made a strategic calculation that we want to be hitting people when they're paying attention," said Davis campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley.

Davis' first ad is set to air Tuesday across Florida and features former Sen. Bob Graham praising the Tampa congressman.

Davis has led Smith in fundraising, but as a member of Congress he faces restrictions on raising unlimited "soft money" for the state party, which can run ads touting a candidate. It's not yet clear how big an advantage that could be for Smith, who is supplementing his TV spots with ads funded by the party.

Meanwhile, Democratic voters face a choice between two little-known candidates who differ little on the issues. Both want to invest more money in schools and attract more teachers with better pay. Both talk up their leadership fighting intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, and both say they have a knack for reaching across party lines to get things done.

Davis, meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, said he has a consistently strong environmental record, while Smith supported protecting gun ranges from lead contamination lawsuits and in 2003 backed postponing the deadline for Everglades cleanup.

Smith, when asked about the differences between him and Davis, noted his track record in winning over moderates in North Florida and stressed electability and effectiveness.

"I believed when I got in this race, and I believe now, that Jim Davis could never be elected governor. I don't believe he can win North Florida," said Smith, adding that he's left more of an imprint as a public official than Davis has.

"My worst detractor would not say that I have been an ineffective senator," Smith said. "I believe that, being kind to Jim, I think he has been mediocre, both in the House and in the Congress."


Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or

Recent polls have shown Jim Davis leading Rod Smith from 15 to 28 percentage points, but with as many as 57 percent of Democrats undecided.

[Last modified August 4, 2006, 01:49:50]

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