Davis vs. Smith a hard sell in S. Fla.
Everything is working against the two Democratic candidates for governor in the place where everything is on the line for them.
By ALEX LEARY
Published August 20, 2006
PEMBROKE PINES - Maria Tipps has been a loyal Democrat since registering to vote at age 18. But in the race for governor, she can't decide whom she likes.
First she has to remember their names.
"I've seen that Smith guy on TV, the one where he's by a helicopter," Tipps, 40, said as she walked her beagle, Cassie, through her suburban Broward County neighborhood last week. "Who's the other one? I feel embarrassed not knowing."
Down the road at Katz Deli, 55-year-old Charles Levy could recall the ad where Jim Davis is endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. But that's about all. "I follow politics and I only know the basic minimum," he conceded. "It's a shame."
With a little more than two weeks before the primary, many Florida Democrats remain undecided - up to 60 percent in some polls - about Davis or Rod Smith. Nowhere else does the problem seem so acute, the stakes so high, than South Florida, home to 1.3-million potential Democratic voters, fully half of whom were undecided when the St. Petersburg Times conducted its poll the week of Aug. 8.
Only a fraction will vote in the primary, but the candidate who gets to them first may take South Florida and, possibly, the election. Half a million Democratic voters alone live here in Broward County, a busy landscape dotted with kosher delis, high-rise condos and mile after mile of gated communities and shopping plazas.
Political signs in all sizes and colors line yards, fences and walls, but they largely represent scores of local candidates. There are seven judicial races alone, fielding 23 hopefuls. Davis and Smith, with their common surnames, seem obscured in the election-year soup.
Other factors have complicated the Smith-Davis game plans:
- Name recognition. Smith is from the Gainesville area; Davis from Tampa. Neither has run statewide before.
- Money. Miami is the most expensive television market in the state, taxing the Democrats' already modest treasuries. In speeches, Davis begs audiences, and only half-jokingly, not to get up for a snack during TV breaks, saying a single commercial can cost $1-million.
- Similar messages. Although Smith and Davis have dramatically different personalities, they mostly agree on the issues. And around here, the issues are the same as anywhere else in the state: insurance and education.
"I've met Jim Davis and he seems pretty smart and honest. And I've seen Rod Smith and he seems to be smart and honest," said Jay Fudim, 70, who showed up to hear Davis talk Monday night at an American Legion hall in Miami.
"It's going to be very tough, right down to the wire," Fudim said. "I think it'll be that way for a lot of people."
Abe Bacon, 78, who lives in the huge Pembroke Pines condo community Century Village, said he saw Smith's property insurance ad - the one where he shouts over the noise from a helicopter - and is leaning toward supporting him.
"I like what he says, but they all say it," Bacon added. (Davis began airing his own property insurance spot Thursday). "Who knows, between now and election time I may change my mind."
Both campaigns are working to alter that dynamic with repeated visits to Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Smith long ago made Broward his campaign headquarters (he has an apartment there, too) and Davis set up a satellite office in early July in an adjacent building.
From each of these posts, young campaign staffers are running an intense ground game carried out by volunteers, union members and local officials who have given their endorsement and lent their political networks.
People like Barbara Effman, a condominium leader backing Smith. Last Monday, Effman organized a breakfast for Smith in Plantation that drew 130 people. Effman is effusive in her praise for the state senator from Alachua, but realizes much work remains.
"There's probably a million people out there that haven't been seen or touched by either one of them," she said.
Smith, a former labor lawyer, has picked up key union endorsements in South Florida, including Broward and Dade teachers unions. When a truckload of signs arrived at headquarters the other day, a staff member had a list of firefighters she could call to put them up.
Members of the painters union drove the vans during Smith's recent statewide tour and appeared in the background of his television ads. Teachers have made calls to potential voters.
"In a primary with so many undecided voters and where the turnout could be low, there's nothing like a little elbow grease out there," said Paul Neaville, Smith's campaign manager.
Effman's counterpart in the Davis camp is Diane Glasser, also a well-known Broward activist. Two weeks ago, she organized an all-day condominium tour for Davis. A day earlier, black leaders took Davis to church.
Davis has called into a Haitian radio program hosted by Jacques Despinosse, a North Miami City Council member, and appeared on Spanish-language television. When early voting begins Monday, the campaign plans to have a representative at every polling location in Broward.
Davis, emerging from the American Legion hall on Monday, said he was not too concerned about the high percentage of undecideds.
"People are just tuning in," he said. "Kids are getting back to school, people are coming back from vacations."
Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who managed Bill McBride's upset of Janet Reno in the 2002 primary, agreed. But she thinks the Democrats' message could be further impeded by the timing of the Sept. 5 contest. "It's already difficult enough to get folks to participate in a primary. Putting it right after a three-day holiday makes it even more difficult."
"Time is running out. We need to get the message out," said Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson. She appeared with Davis in the Little Haiti section of Miami on Monday, where he announced the collective endorsement of nearly 200 black leaders.
The week ahead could prove pivotal for either candidate. They will face off in a televised debate in Tampa on Wednesday. The following week, they will return to the South Florida battleground for a televised debate in West Palm Beach.
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.