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Politics

Governor race shares presidential spotlight

John Edwards, a likely contender for the White House in 2008, visits to bolster Jim Davis' run for the Governor's Mansion. Expect others.

By ADAM C. SMITH and ALEX LEARY
Published September 16, 2006


MIAMI - Almost every aspiring Democratic presidential candidate called Jim Davis after the primary to offer congratulations and help. But it's no surprise that John Edwards on Friday became the first one to campaign side by side with the Tampa congressman.

After all, the Davis campaign looks in some ways like an Edwards-for-president practice session to get the former North Carolina senator's troops battle-ready for the big show in 2008. If Davis can overcome the daunting fundraising hurdles in his path and make a race of it against Charlie Crist, he would give Edwards' foot soldiers a lot to crow about.

It's share and share-alike between the two campaigns. In December 2004, when Davis summoned key Democrats to Tampa for a meeting before jumping into the governor's race, he had two political pros make a presentation: Edwards' old presidential campaign manager, Nick Baldick, and Edwards' pollster, Harrison Hickman.

Hickman is now Davis' pollster in the governor's race, and Baldick remains close to many on the campaign.

Davis' campaign manager, Jennifer O'Malley, is Edwards' field director in Iowa; his policy director, Tait Sye, was Edwards' old deputy press secretary. Even Davis' senior travel aide, Reggie Hubbard, used to campaign by Edwards' side and hugged his old boss Friday.

With Bruce Springsteen's The Rising blaring over the loudspeakers, Edwards, Davis and his running mate, former state Sen. Daryl Jones, walked into an ebullient crowd of 150 supporters at Miami-Dade College in downtown Miami.

"These are two men who I think represent the best of Florida, the best of America," Edwards said. "Two men who show strength together, what's possible. I look at them, and I see hope and potential."

But Davis needs a lot more than Edwards' kind words to give Republican Crist a tough race. Nationally, many Democrats have all but written off the governor's race in Florida, and traditionally cash-strapped Florida Democrats face even bigger hurdles this year.

The state teachers union, which poured millions into the 2002 governor's race, is investing little this year. Trial lawyers have long been a key source of Democratic money, but that's not certain this election.

Many leading trial lawyers, including John Morgan in Orlando, Steve Pajcic in Jacksonville and Fred Levin in Pensacola, early on backed Charlie Crist in the Republican gubernatorial primary and Rod Smith in the Democratic primary. With Crist naming as his running mate state Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, a partner in the personal injury giant Morgan and Morgan, many Democrats fear Crist helped dry up a big well of campaign money.

As of Aug. 31, the state Democratic Party had $1.02-million on hand in its state campaign accounts, compared to $1.63-million for the state GOP. But more ominous for Democrats is the difference in the two parties' federal campaign accounts, which under campaign finance laws pay for most of the get-out-the-vote efforts done by the parties, such as absentee ballot mailers or phone banks.

The Florida Republican Party had $5.9-million in its federal account as of July 31, while the state's Democrats had less than $1.2-million.

"We just need enough to be competitive," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a veteran Democratic fundraiser leading Davis' effort. "We're going to work hard to raise the money we need to compete."

Federal campaign laws add potentially significant restrictions on Davis. As a sitting member of Congress, he can't solicit more than $10,000 from an individual. Attorney General Crist, who wants to raise $30-million, has no such restriction.

On top of that, the Florida governor's race is receiving little attention nationally. When Chuck Todd, editor of the widely read Hotline on Thursday dropped Florida's ranking to the 17th most competitive governor's race, he reflected the prevailing view of GOP strength in Florida.

"A bad post-primary week for Davis seems to be getting worse," Todd wrote. "National Democrats seem reluctant to invest, and the Florida media appears to have already framed this election as 'Crist's to lose.' "

In 2002, the Democratic National Committee made beating Jeb Bush its top priority. Not this year. Analysts so far see many other gubernatorial races as more competitive.

"Part of the problem is the sheer expense in Florida," said Jennifer Duffy, managing editor of the independent Cook Political Report. "(With) what they would have to invest to make a difference, they could fund three other states. In an environment where you have 36 gubernatorial races and a lot are competitive, sometimes you have to make tough decisions."

With 27 electoral votes in the presidential race, national Democratic candidates will always want to be in the mix of a high profile statewide race. Among the presidential contenders following on Edwards' heels include Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is expected in South Florida on Sept. 25, and John Kerry, who is expected in the state Sept. 29.

Ann Lewis, spokeswoman for Sen. Hillary Clinton's political action committee, jumped at the chance to say kind things about Florida and said Clinton had raised money for the state party earlier this year. "She came back and said Florida Democrats have really got it together," Lewis said. "We have been watching very carefully. We feel very good about Democrats' chances in Florida, including Jim Davis."

The party controlling the Governor's Mansion has an automatic 2 percentage point advantage in that state, Baldick said.

"When polls start coming out in next couple of weeks and show the race a lot tighter than people think, the national Democrats, or at least the smart ones, are going to pay a lot more attention to Florida," he said.

"If there were a Democratic governor in Florida in 2000, we wouldn't have President Bush."

In the crucial first caucus state of Iowa, Edwards' allies are playing a big role in trying to elect Democrat Chet Culver as governor. The potential benefits there to Edwards are much greater than Florida, which is later in the primary season.

The Edwards links to the Davis campaign are not especially surprising, given pollster Hickman's roles in the two campaigns. Davis' media adviser, Anita Dunn, though, works with Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.

Asked if he passed along some of his staff to Davis, Edwards said, "Some of them we did, yes." Despite what some Democratic contributors may think, Edwards said Davis is well-positioned to take the Governor's Mansion, calling him a man of "integrity and vision."

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

[Last modified September 16, 2006, 01:38:36]


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