tampabay.com

Davis courts North Florida

Jim Davis and his running mate campaign to conservatives and black churches to gain the Democrats goodwill.

By ALEX LEARY
Published September 25, 2006


GAINESVILLE - Jim Davis bounced from one tailgate party to the next, spending a minute with anyone who would listen. "Hi, Jim Davis. Running for governor," he told a man in a nylon folding chair, back to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"I feel sorry for you," the man replied, leaving Davis perplexed. "You don't have a chance."

That has been the prevailing thought as Davis, a congressman from Tampa, campaigns against a better known, better funded opponent: Republican Charlie Crist.

But in a two-day swing through North Florida that brought the campaign before conservatives in Pensacola and thousands of black worshipers in Jacksonville, Davis and his running mate, Daryl Jones, sought to show themselves as anything but the dead souls that one minister preached about.

Their campaign was emboldened Sunday with a newspaper poll showing the race a near dead heat.

"The choice is very simple," Davis said in Panama City. "If you are happy with what's happening to your insurance bill on your home or business. If you are happy with what's happening to your real estate taxes. If you are happy with our schools ...

"Stay the course. But if you are ready to fight for change, join us today."

Over his shoulder, perched on a steel piling, was a full-size fighter jet, a scene chosen to highlight Jones' Air Force background. Democrats hope that the credentials will improve their standing in North Florida, an area in which they must do well if they are to compete in November.

Amid the crowd of 100 were various supporters of Rod Smith, Davis' primary challenger. Amalia Pena said Davis needs to get on TV as soon as possible to counter Crist.

"His issues can be great, but if he doesn't start pushing on TV, he'll go nowhere," Pena said.

Heading to Gainesville, Davis tried to spin Crist's latest ad - his second since the Sept. 5 primary - as validation of his strength. The ad attacks Davis as a tax-and-spend liberal, a label that Davis rejects.

"They see us coming," Davis said.

Davis said he will advertise when it is time - it's not time, he said - and predicted that contributions will flow. He was overhead asking a prominent fundraiser, banker Joe Chapman, to help him make a strong showing this week - to "reload."

Crist gained nearly $1.2-million in the first full week of the general election campaign, almost 10 times as much as Davis. He was back at it Sunday, in addition to attending the Dolphins-Tennessee Titans game in Miami.

This week, Crist plans a New York trip where Donald Trump will raise him more money.

Crist said he does not represent the status quo because he wants to lower taxes and raise teacher salaries. He said it does not matter that he is not a homeowner or a parent. What matters most, he said, is which candidate is most concerned about taxpayers.

But when asked about his status as a childless apartment renter, Crist changed the subject to Davis' poor record of missed votes in Congress.

"I show up for work," Crist said. "I think that's an important issue, too."

Davis has said he is trying to balance his obligations in Washington and his goal of bringing new leadership to Tallahassee.

In Gainesville, Davis met with about 25 "Gators for Davis," telling them he would fight for more need-based financial aid. He greeted fans gearing up for the Florida-Kentucky football game and was again urged to act.

"We need to see you on TV more. That other guy has been on TV a lot," said Don Grabach, 68, of Melbourne.

Jones, who had been in Tallahassee to work tailgate parties on his own, rejoined Davis in Jacksonville on Sunday for a tour of black churches. Davis introduced his African-American running mate, who was enthusiastically received everywhere he went.

"This is not a race for governor; this is a mission to change the way things have been over the last eight years," Jones said at one church..

Davis told worshipers that he would work to end the use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test as a "political weapon," a line that brought sustained applause, and also to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time.

Afterward, they headed to a luncheon at a nearby Holiday Inn. A copy of the Florida Times-Union lay on the banquet table, its lead story detailing a poll showing Crist's advantage at 6 percentage points, with a 4 point margin of error.

"The race," Davis said to hearty applause, "is basically tied."

Amid the celebration was a stark reminder of the challenges facing the Democrats. Just as he had in Pensacola and Panama City, Jones pleaded with the crowd to write checks. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, unprompted, took off her sequin-crusted hat and passed it around.

Within seconds, two $500 checks were dropped inside.