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Democratic gubernatorial contest gets testy

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis blasts his rival's environmental record, while he is criticized for missing votes in Congress.

Published August 8, 2006

TAMARAC - The heat is rising in the low-key race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

While U.S. Rep. Jim Davis criticized rival state Sen. Rod Smith's environmental record among Democratic activists in South Florida on Monday, an independent group backing Smith sent a mailer targeting Jewish voters bashing Davis for missing a congressional vote condemning Hezbollah attacks on Israel.

"Even though Jim Davis was elected to represent our values and interests in Congress, he did not even bother to show up," said the mailer sent by a group called Florida's Working Families Inc.

The Smith campaign said it was unaware of the mailing and had nothing to do with it.

The organization is funded by U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston, which coincidentally fit into Davis' main knock on Smith on Monday - that he's weak on protecting the Everglades and other environmental priorities. "Big sugar" is an industry often vilified by environmental activists, and some of Smith's key campaign advisers lobby for sugar interests.

"We have very different views on the environment," Davis told nearly 100 residents gathered to hear him over ice cream at the sprawling King's Point condo complex in Broward County. "Two years ago, the League of Conservation Voters rated both of us. I got 100 percent. ... Rod got 39 out of 40 (state senators). The bottom."

Smith scored particularly poorly in that 2004 ranking of state senators because he voted a number of times to make it harder to amend the Florida Constitution, for which the Florida League of Conservation Voters took points off. He scored better earlier. The league ranked him with the 12th best environmental voting record in 2001 and 13th in 2002.

With less than a month before the Sept. 5 primary, the Democratic race appears unpredictable. A July 31 and Aug. 1 poll for the Miami Herald found Davis leading Smith by 5 percentage points but 58 percent of likely primary voters undecided in the race.

Davis has taken heat for missing votes while campaigning for governor, accumulating one of the worst records of missed votes in Congress. He said most of the votes he missed were formalities or already had broad support, and his campaign noted that Davis sent out a statement condemning Hezbollah three days before the July 20 resolution passed 410-8 on July 20.

Davis is endorsed by the Jewish members of Florida's congressional delegation.

Asked whether he might air TV ads questioning Smith's environmental credentials, Davis said no decisions like that had been made. But he said it makes sense to raise the issue because the candidates share such similar platforms.

"People keep saying to me, 'Jim, tell me some of the big differences between you,' and there aren't that many that are that clear to point to," Davis said.

As residents at the Century Village complex in Deerfield Beach waited to hear Davis on Monday morning, Davis supporter Ann Zucker stopped at each table to talk up her candidate: "(Davis) is the only candidate in the race who doesn't have an A rating from the (National Rifle Association), and he's the only candidate who doesn't send a family member to a right wing Christian organization," said Zucker, who is also president of the Weston Democratic Club in Broward.

She referred to Smith's son-in-law, a Lutheran minister, who represented the campaign a couple of months ago at the Miami-Dade Christian Family Coalition's pastor appreciation breakfast. The visit drew criticism by some party activists because the coalition, among other things, staunchly opposes abortion and gay rights.

Smith said at the time that he wanted to reach out to all voters, not only those who agree with him, and that his son-in-law made it clear that Smith disagrees with the group on some key issues.

The Smith campaign also noted that roughly one-third of those at the prayer breakfast were Democratic African-American ministers. It said that in 1996, Davis, then a state representative, co-sponsored a bill supporting school prayer - unpopular with many Democratic activists - which then-Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed.

As Davis campaigned Monday among older Democratic activists in Broward County, voters said they knew little or nothing about the candidates.

"I hear Rod Smith on TV, but I never heard of this Davis guy," said Lester Siegel, a former taxi driver from Brooklyn, N.Y., who retired to Century Village in Deerfield Beach.

Smith has been airing TV ads across the state for about 10 days, while Davis' first ad, featuring former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, is set to start airing today.

They may have known little about him, but Davis drew large crowds throughout Broward on Monday.

"When I heard Rodman (Smith) a few months ago, I came away very impressed, but my friend said not to make up my mind until I saw Jim Davis," Frances Dresdner, a retiree in Tamarac, said after listening to Davis. "But now I definitely support Davis. He seems more logical and down to earth, not so much of a shouter."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 00:19:21]

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