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Democrats to court undecided voters

The debate is at 8 p.m. on WEDU-TV.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published August 23, 2006

There is a cold, hard truth to be faced tonight as the main Democratic gubernatorial candidates try to win over a vast number of undecided voters in a televised debate.

U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, boyish and angular, has a mug for TV. State Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua? Well, not so much.

“I have big hair, fuzzy eyebrows and a bulbous nose,’’ said Smith, declaring himself far and away the top gubernatorial choice for editorial cartoonists.

Be that as it may, Smith and Davis hold their first statewide televised debate live at 8 tonight on public TV stations across the state. Both are regional politicians little known to most voters, both are smart and well-versed on state issues, and both have become increasingly combative as the Sept. 5 primary approaches.

On Tuesday, a group heavily funded by the U.S. Sugar Co. began airing TV ads in Tampa Bay and much of the state trashing Davis:

“You should know: Congressman Jim Davis has the second worst attendance in Congress,’’ a somber narrator intones.

“Jim Davis voted to deny some struggling workers the minimum wage. Jim Davis voted against capping rates credit card companies can charge us. Jim Davis voted against allowing seniors to order low-cost prescription drugs from Canada. Maybe we should be glad Jim Davis rarely shows up for work.”

The Davis campaign called it false and a smear (he has consistently supported raising the minimum wage), and a lawyer for Davis called on TV stations to pull the commercial. Smith, the Davis campaign said, “is running to be governor of special interests, for special interests and by special interests.’’

 The back and forth about the ad sets the stage for a debate loaded with the potential for fireworks. With the latest St. Petersburg Times poll showing Smith trailing Davis by 14 percentage points and 44 percent of Democrats undecided, Smith has the most to gain from a strong showing.

We offer this guide for voters who want to score the battle at home.

MESSAGE: The fact is these are two centrist Democrats who agree on most issues. They hate the way the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is used; they want to raise teacher pay; they depict congressional and legislative intervention in the Terri Schiavo case as but one example of Florida Republican leaders moving too far to the right and away from mainstream Floridians.

But look for Davis to cast himself as the Tallahassee outsider and Smith as part of the status quo.

At previous forums, Smith often pushes back hard at Davis’ sweeping criticisms of Tallahassee by casting Davis as a product of even-more-loathed Washington.

Smith is selling “straight talk” and likability. Look for him to tout his effectiveness, perhaps citing how he helped kill Republican efforts to rescind the class size reduction mandate and enshrine school vouchers in the state Constitution.

STYLE: Smith is a former prosecutor who is funny and at times sounds like a fiery Baptist preacher. At forums he typically outshines Davis.

But TV is a different medium, and not one that necessarily plays to Smith’s strength. A booming voice and rapid speech may come off as passion in a condo clubhouse. On TV it can look a little too intense, a little too hot.

Check out Smith’s smile tonight. Does it look like a spontaneous expression? Or a strained grin befitting a politician constantly reminded to smile more? Also count how many jokes Smith makes (and how many come off as forced).

Davis is polished and unflappable, Smith more extemporaneous. If someone’s going to wing it and say something they’ll later regret, odds are it will be Smith.

Another game to play at home: How often does Davis cock his head when making a point? Some viewers see Jimmy Stewart-like wholesomeness. Others see the know-it-all teacher’s pet they couldn’t stand in middle school.

BARBS: Lots of opportunity here for both sides. Davis has missed more votes this year than all but one other member of Congress, and Smith has been all too happy to make an issue out of it.

Davis, meanwhile, is not shy about noting that he has consistently received strong environmental marks, while one year the Florida League of Conservation Voters said Smith had the second worst record in the state Senate.

The sugar industry, often reviled by environmental groups, has pumped nearly $300,000 into political committees backing Smith. And reports don’t show yet whether sugar put up much of the nearly $680,000 spent on the new TV ad attacking Davis.

The Democrats will face off again Tuesday night for a televised debate to be broadcast on NBC stations. Republican gubernatorial candidates will debate Monday night on NBC stations.

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

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