Democrats' show of unity lacks co-star

The last time Rod Smith and Jim Davis were in the same room was the Aug. 23 debate in Tampa.

Published September 21, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - It took Janet Reno two days. Tom Gallagher, two days. Rod Smith - two weeks and counting.

Losers of hard-fought primary contests may want nothing to do with the victor but are typically quick to show up at unity events that, with broad smiles and firm handshakes, are designed to send a signal to voters and campaign contributors that from here on out, it's the party that matters.

Yet Smith has yet to appear on stage with gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, who won the Sept. 5 primary by 52,718 votes. Smith's absence raises questions about unity in the Democratic Party at a time when it is essential for a victory over Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican who this week flew around the state to trumpet more than 100 Democrats who are supporting him.

"There's no way Democrats can be competitive without Rod Smith and Jim Davis standing together and offering an alternative to the Republican plan. It just won't happen," said Democratic strategist Bob Buckhorn. "I can guarantee you, on the other side they are united."

Just two days after their tough primary, Gallagher and Crist set off on a statewide tour with Gov. Jeb Bush and other top Republicans (except U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris) as a show of unity. Four years ago, in the intensely close Democratic primary for governor, Reno promptly showed up for an event with winner Bill McBride. "He is going to make us proud," she said moments before the two walked off the stage to the soul classic Love Train. Three days later, they did it again.

Genuine or not, such events generate widespread news coverage and a pep-rally atmosphere for rank-and-file party activists.

Smith on Wednesday denied he was avoiding Davis, saying he took time off and now is trying to restart his law practice. He will try to make a Democratic dinner tonight in Gainesville, where Davis' running mate Daryl Jones will speak, but noted there is a Tom Petty concert in town at the same time.

"I love Daryl, but Tom Petty was my theme song," Smith said, adding he is leaning toward going to the dinner.

He said he cannot make a stop with Davis and Jones on Saturday in Pensacola because he wants to join his wife, Dee Dee Smith, at their vacation home in North Carolina. (There is a televised University of Florida football game that day, Smith added in jest.)

"There's no avoidance; it's just the realities," he said. "I've now got to acclimate myself to the demands of private life, which I've explained to both Daryl and Jim." Smith put out two statements within days after the primary calling for Democrats to rally behind Davis.

The last time the men were in the same room together was during the televised debate in Tampa on Aug. 23. The outcome of their primary was not known until after 11 p.m. primary election night, and each mentioned the other in their speeches.

About halfway though his 11-minute address, Davis called Smith "magnanimous" and a tough opponent, urging the crowd at a Hilton in Tampa to give him a round of applause.

Smith dedicated the first 30 seconds of a four-minute speech congratulating Davis. Three minutes after he finished, a news release from the Davis campaign boasted of victory over "a $5 million smear campaign funded by special interests." The tone rattled Smith staffers and family. Many at the time compared it to pouring lemon juice over a wound.

Davis spokesman Josh Earnest said the e-mail was targeted not at Smith or his team, but the negative effects of special interests, a defining theme of Davis' campaign. Big Sugar had poured $5-million into pro-Smith political groups to attack Davis on his voting record.

The news release credited, in the third and fourth paragraphs, Smith's "passionate advocacy of Democratic values" and said that the men planned to work together.

In a way, they already have.

Davis and Smith have had several phone conversations since election day (Smith lauded Davis' selection of Jones as his running mate and has offered advice) and several top Smith supporters have turned their efforts toward Davis. They include Bob Butterworth, the former state attorney general, and Chris Korge, Smith's campaign chairman. Korge said Wednesday that he is raising national money for the Democratic Party to help Davis.

Some said any division between the two was overstated.

Appearing together is purely symbolic and can happen any time, preferably in front of lot of people, said Jim Krog, a Democratic lobbyist who backed Smith.

"Are they ever going to be best buddies? No. They're just not the same kind of people," said Screven Watson, a Smith adviser. "But there's no animosity there."

Democrats may be encouraged by a new poll for the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, which shows Crist leading Davis among the 818 likely voters surveyed, 45 percent to 39 percent.

Considering Crist has been on TV steadily since May and has run statewide several times before, it is a positive sign for Davis. Crist has not yet reached the magic 50 percent mark.