tampabay.com

For battered Davis, worst lies ahead

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published September 6, 2006


How can U.S. Rep. Jim Davis possibly beat charming Charlie Crist, the telegenic, lavishly funded Republican gubernatorial candidate who stuck to the ideological center throughout a sometimes bruising GOP primary?

A) He probably won’t.

B) But there’s way too much material for Democrats to work with to chalk this up as a foregone conclusion yet.
Davis emerged as the Democrats’ wounded Democratic nominee Tuesday.

He had underestimated Rod Smith’s strength from the start, saw his 20-point primary lead evaporate, and now faces an even tougher — much tougher — general election campaign.

What won’t work well for Davis is trying to cast Attorney General Crist as a right winger out of step with average Floridians. Advocating higher teacher pay, sticking with the class-size reduction mandate and sounding ambivalent on restricting abortions, Crist has campaigned much more like a general election centrist than a Republican primary conservative.

What does that leave Davis to work with? Leadership and substance.

Crist has a thin record of substantive accomplishments and a thick record of ducking tough and complex issues and questions. A bumper sticker theme to take on Crist? “Where was Charlie?’’

Where was Crist’s leadership as insurances rates soared (as a Cabinet member he was one of three with direct oversight of Florida’s insurance regulators)? Where was the former education commissioner as Florida’s teacher shortage grew worse and worse?

Crist opposed phone companies raising rates dramatically in 2004, but stayed quiet when some legislators and consumers advocates fought to kill legislation that made the rate increases inevitable. The attorney general eventually said he opposed intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, but stayed quiet when the debate was raging.

He says he opposes expanded gambling in Florida, but has received loads of financial help from gaming interests and stayed on the sidelines in 2004 when opponents tried to defeat a ballot initiative that expanded gambling in Broward County.

“Charlie has taken a principled position on both sides of every major issue. And I think what people are looking for is a strong leader,’’ Davis said. “When it comes to standing up to these insurance companies and showing some backbone. When it comes to being in the middle of a hurricane, Floridians want a strong leader. Charlie Crist is not strong.’’

Tuesday night at Crist’s victory party in St. Petersburg, Democrats passed out waffles to celebrate the Republican nominee.

Democrats would do well to borrow from the playbooks of Republicans Bush and, just a little, from Gallagher.
Much as Bush hammered Bill McBride in 2002 for not explaining how he would pay for the class size amendment, Davis should press Crist hard on how he can pay for tax cuts and also billions in additional spending on schools, teachers and law enforcement.

Just as Gallagher made Crist look like a waffler when he danced around a direct question on abortion in their second debate, the Democrats should push hard for specific answers.

If all this sound simple for Democrats, think again.

Davis’ campaign is nearly broke, and seriously bloodied. Smith’s allies in the sugar industry spent $4-million casting the Tampa Democrat as cold-hearted about two wrongfully imprisoned African-Americans, opposed to minimum wage increases, and a no-show in Congress.

Crist is already touting his efforts to solve the 1951 murder of civil rights pioneer Harry Moore, while Davis starts the general election needing to repair the damage done to him among African-Americans and other party faithful.

“He’s got to give the Democratic base a reason to be excited about him. That’s pivotal,’’ said Derek Newton, a Democratic consultant in Miami who noted that Davis is still only vaguely known outside of Tampa Bay.

That three unknown Democrats chalked up a hefty chunk of the primary vote speaks volumes about how little known Davis and Smith were.

With Gov. Bush busy in recent weeks raising money for the Florida GOP’s general election, expect to see ads hammering the Democratic nominee soon. The popular governor will be hitting back as Democrats try to argue Floridians want a new direction from Tallahassee.

Meanwhile, it’s at best uncertain how much national Democratic money will flow into Florida’s governor’s race.

Unlike 2002 when Bush was a top target, few Democrats outside the state see Florida’s governor’s mansion as a likely pick-up. Democrats are much better situated to win Republican-held governorships in at least five other states — New York, Ohio, Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas, and Massachusetts.

But Florida is so crucial to the presidential race in 2008 that the money will certainly flow if the polls show a tight contest.

Beleaguered Florida Democrats have more reason for optimism than they’ve had in years. There’s a national embarrassment named Katherine Harris on the GOP ticket, a Republican gubernatorial nominee who won’t energize social conservatives, a terrible climate for Republicans nationally, and two Cabinet candidates — Alex Sink for chief financial officer and Walter “Skip” Campbell for attorney general — who are formidable contenders.

In Jim Davis, Democrats have a sharp and disciplined nominee for governor who can cut Crist’s advantage in crucial the Tampa Bay area. But Davis has no time to savor his primary win. The toughest campaign comes now.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.