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Bill Nelson's pot of gold

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published October 1, 2006


Fate has been glorious to Florida's senior senator and leader of the state's beleaguered Democrats. It's tough to imagine a more desirable opponent for Sen. Bill Nelson than Katherine Harris.

Awash in Washington scandal, prone to bizarre statements and battered with public ridicule and backstabbing from fellow Republicans, Harris has no chance to beat Nelson. Nada. Still, she's famous enough for the world to notice Nelson's win.

For a Democratic senator who might fancy himself somebody's presidential running mate someday and it's no secret Nelson does, Nelson surely would relish proving his strength in Republican-leaning Florida by matching former Sen. Bob Graham's 25 percentage point victory over Charlie Crist in 1998.

Note to Nelson: Crushing Harris won't impress anybody; it's expected. To set yourself apart and make a mark in Florida and nationally, make a significant contribution to rebuilding the Florida Democratic Party and its bench of candidates.

Florida Democratic icons like Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham never did much to position their party for the future. Nelson could do plenty. With no real competition for re-election, he had more than $12-million to spend on his campaign as of the August campaign reports, compared to $2.3-million for Harris.

Shifting several million Nelson dollars to the state Democratic Party's "coordinated campaign" effort to mobilize all Democratic voters could make a huge difference in determining whether Florida Democrats on Nov. 8 are finally crowing about success or beginning another circular firing squad.

I may sound here like a shill for the ever hapless Florida Democratic Party. Really I'm just echoing the question I hear most consistently from savvy Florida Republican and Democratic politicos lately.

Will Bill Nelson look out for No. 1, or do something meaningful for his party?

Thanks in large part to President Bush and Iraq, Democrats for the first time in years have shots at winning crucial statewide offices like attorney general, chief financial officer, even perhaps governor. Having a foothold of power in Tallahassee can have a dramatic effect on statewide presidential campaigns. Nelson could improve his '08 veepstakes prospects more by winning another statewide office for Democrats than by pummeling Harris.

"History teaches us that the only way for any party to mount a successful presidential campaign is with the aid and assistance of those in power in Tallahassee," said veteran state and presidential Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger, gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis' finance chairman.

"In order to be successful, we must be successful in winning either a Cabinet post or the Governor's Mansion to have one of the levers of power in Tallahassee. The coordinated campaign is the vehicle to do that."

Nelson would not come to the phone to talk about this. But Chad Clanton, his campaign manager, said Nelson can best serve Florida Democrats by performing well at the top of the ballot and noted that Nelson has helped bring a host of national stars like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton into Florida to raise money.

Puh-lease. Given Florida's 27 electoral votes and deep-pocketed Democratic donors, any ambitious Democrat would be a fool not to help Florida Democrats this year.

To be fair, Nelson has paid more attention to the state party than his predecessors, effectively installing former U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman as chairwoman and the respected Luis Navarro as executive director.

The fact remains, though, that Nelson is sitting on one of biggest campaign accounts in the country while other Florida Democrats are struggling to be competitive.

The money Nelson's raised to date under tight federal campaign finance restrictions is the gold bullion of political money that can be spent almost any way he chooses. Keep a close eye over this month to see how Nelson treats his fellow Florida Democrats.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com For much more breaking political news check blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.

[Last modified October 1, 2006, 06:03:02]


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