On the road, on the lookout for votes

By Times Staff
Published September 4, 2006

The final days of the primary campaign for governor are all about the road. Big crowds and small diners. Airplanes and buses. Handshakes and speeches. The days start with 7 a.m. breakfasts and they end in hotel rooms after midnight. The political team of the St. Petersburg Times is on the road this weekend, too, with the four major candidates for governor: Tom Gallagher, Charlie Crist, Jim Davis and Rod Smith. Check out some scenes from the final weekend. Primary voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

Tom Gallagher

Keystone Heights
— Moments after his bus stopped in this small Northeast Florida town for a Labor Day parade, Tom Gallagher and his wife headed out into the streets to ask for votes.

Their first stop: A golf cart waiting to join the parade, its occupants holding Charlie Crist fans and wearing Charlie Crist T-shirts. It was the last in an eight-vehicle caravan organized by the Police Benevolence Association, a law enforcement union backing Crist.

“That was a smart move on his part,” Kevin Schutzler, 45, a state corrections officer from Gainesville, said as he sat in the back of the golf cart. “It’s never too late to change a vote.”
Gallagher didn’t change Schutzler’s vote. But he and Laura Gallagher didn’t stop trying to find others along the parade route and throughout a grueling four-day bus tour that ended Sunday at a Pensacola Christian College’s 6,500-congregation church and a picnic honoring the armed forces. The couple’s 7-year-old son, Charlie, joined the tour Saturday.

“The election isn’t over!,” Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told a flag-waving crowd in the historic Seville Square from a bunting-drapped gazebo. “We got two days to do our work.”

Gallagher, 62, and his entourage have been relentless campaigners, putting in 15-hour days and traveling 1,075 miles to mostly small events in Republican-rich areas, from a stop at Fred’s Market in Plant City to visits with Republican groups in Vero Beach and Sun City Center.

Aimed at courting conservative voters, Gallagher’s introductions almost always emphasized what he has and Crist doesn’t: a wife, a child and a mortgage.

Gallagher followed with his own comments, nearly always the same: Antitax, antiabortion, and anti-gay marriage. “I don’t want a judge in Massachusetts defining marriage in Florida,” he said countless times, a reference to his support for Florida4Marriage.org, which seeks to add a marriage definition to the state Constitution.

On Friday, in a small Orlando office suite for Florida4Marriage.org, an introduction from the group’s leader, John Stemberger, was a bit more creative.

Unlike Crist, Gallagher has the heft and experience to lead the state, he said: “It’s like comparing a Ken doll to G.I. Joe.”

Charlie Crist

The crowds love Charlie Crist. Whether it was a Gator football game in Gainesville or a wing joint in Coral Springs, people stood in line to get a picture with Crist, a handshake or an autographed T-shirt.

“I need your help!” Crist says. “I won’t let you down, so don’t let me down.”

Nowhere was the enthusiasm for Crist greater than at University of Florida on Saturday, where hundreds of people mobbed him on their way into the Gators’ home football opener. He shook every hand, posed for every picture: “I love people. What can I say?”

In Gainesville, Mark Skipper, a 34-year-old Orlando lawyer, grilled Crist on abortion and stem cell research. Skipper said he preferred Gallagher’s more conservative stands, but declared himself undecided and said he would not make up his mind until he goes to the polls Tuesday. “It’s a game time decision,” Skipper said.

Crist has a seemingly unlimited army of volunteers who leave nothing to chance. Jeff McAdams, a Gainesville police officer, and a few friends put Crist bumper stickers on 4,000 bottles of water, then handed them out, giving Crist a little extra exposure.

Crist spent 90 minutes in 95-degree heat Saturday afternoon darting into pregame traffic, handing out bumper stickers. Firefighters collecting donations over Labor Day weekend for muscular dystrophy were largely ignored, but dozens of drivers rolled down windows to shake Crist’s hand.

Jim Davis

MIAMI GARDENS — The man sat alone, picking at the last bits of ribs and yellow rice as rain pounded the roof of Esther’s Restaurant.

“Hi, I’m Jim Davis. Running for governor.”

The man at the table, all chest and shoulders, looked up, unfazed.

“I can’t vote, brother, I’m an ex-con.”

Nelson Terrero, 35, did 10 years for armed robbery. Got out three months ago.

Davis slid into the hard-backed booth, that schoolboy look on his face. He wanted to hear Terrero’s story, to tell him that debts can be paid and that as governor, he would fight to restore voting rights for felons. “This is about moving on; this is about the future,” Davis said Saturday.

“You’re going to be a good governor,” Terrero said as Davis got up, promising to tell family members about him.

It is a pace that might frustrate political strategists, with the primary  days away and polls showing Davis’ once-sizable lead over Democratic rival Rod Smith all but gone. But this is how Davis proceeds, one on one, talking issues, listening as much as he speaks.

Davis hovered near the kitchen, postcards bearing his picture in hand.

“I can’t serve you any food, but I can give you some good government,” Davis said, handing the cards to people in line.

People come to Esther’s for soul food — pillowy mounds of mac and cheese, baked chicken and collard greens — not to listen to politicians from across the state seeking the black vote. But on this rainy afternoon, they did.

Davis lingered at a back booth talking to Tannysha Evans, 29, about the FCAT and how it should be a “road map, not a political weapon.” He didn’t earn her vote — not just yet, Evans said — but inspired her to take a closer look at the Democratic primary and not wait for the general election.

Her 4-year-old boy was restless. Davis poked him in the belly and smiled.

Three tables away, Peggy Davis watched her husband do his bit. She smiled, too, picking at her baked chicken.

An older man listened to Jim Davis speak, then went outside and called his daughter. “Jim Davis, running for governor,” he explained to her.

“Dad,” she replied, “he’s straight.” Translation, from Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson, “He’s cool.”

Rod Smith

FORT LAUDERDALE — In these last few days of blistering summer sun, state Sen. Rod Smith is soaking his dress shirts and burning his nose as he power-walks through crowded outdoor events in giant, fast steps. He looks as if he intends to shake the hand of every last Democrat in the state before Tuesday’s primary.

The Democrat from Alachua has a tough Labor Day weekend. His schedule surpasses that of any other gubernatorial candidate, attending far more picnics, festivals and football games, in far more scattered places.He’s put up with a barrage of helicopter jokes (he even started to belt out his lines from his notorious television ad when he saw a helicopter on Saturday) and jabs from reporters and some supporters who have hummed the tune to Sugar, Sugar (by the Archies). Smith has been the beneficiary of millions in campaign spending from the sugar industry.

On Friday, Smith shook hands with a black woman in Pensacola on Friday who mistook him for his opponent Jim Davis, saying she couldn’t vote for anyone who didn’t vote to compensate two wrongly incarcerated black men. Smith, who has lately been pounding Davis for the very same issue, shook his head and corrected her with a desperate: “No that’s the other guy.”

With the exception of Sunday, when Smith attended five Baptist churches in Miami, he’s averaging five flights a day, stopping mostly in North, Central and South Florida. Conspicuously absent are stops in the Davis-strong Tampa Bay area.

The biggest change since his last grueling statewide tour seven weeks ago is that more people seem to know who he is. It’s been a few weeks since Smith has mentioned his old joke about being confused with Rod Stewart, the musician.

On a three-hour stop in Gainesville, popping in on outdoor tailgate parties before the University of Florida football game, Smith was treated like a celebrity. Strangers honked and whooped at him from their cars. Some came up to say they had already voted early- for him, like Bill Nelson Jr., son of the incumbent senator up for reelection.

“That’s Rod Smith,” a woman shouted as Smith parted crowds. A plane carried a banner overhead that said, “Vote Rod Smith for Gov Go Gators.”