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Davis campaign races the clock

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate has lagged in the race behind Republican Charlie Crist, but he hopes his first TV ad will shrink the gap.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY
Published October 2, 2006


TALLAHASSEE — Jim Davis is running short of time and money in his race against Charlie Crist, but starting today his campaign will finally flicker to life across the state.

For the first time since the Sept. 5 primary, the Democratic candidate for governor is advertising on TV, with the election five weeks from today.

The ads show Davis surrounded by school children as he makes a point about improving testing and working a boardroom in discussing property tax relief. The screen fades to Crist as a male voice casts him as a status quo candidate.

Yet no matter how effective the 15-second ads may be in selling Davis’ candidacy, it may be too late.

Despite a burst of passion on the night of his nomination victory and another surge of excitement when he chose an African-American former fighter pilot as his running mate, Davis has struggled to find a rhythm while falling behind in fundraising, support among fellow Democrats and polls (the latest shows him down 21 points).

The disparity in TV advertising — Crist has already had three spots and another is due this week — is just one of the contrasts between the campaigns of two men seeking to replace Gov. Jeb Bush:

- Crist and the Republican Party have saturated the airwaves for weeks with ads that seek to define Davis as a “liberal Washington politician” who opposes lower taxes (Davis will unveil his tax-cut proposal today).

- Crist offers photo-ops to donors in return for $50,000 party contributions, but Davis can’t ask for more than $10,000 because the Tampa congressman is bound by federal campaign laws.

- Crist has papered the state with his name and image and he personally gives bumper stickers to voters, but some Davis supporters say they can’t get yard signs.

“I’ve been asking forever. They keep saying, 'They’re coming,’” said Frankie Thomas, first-vice chair of the Broward Democratic Party and a long-time activist. “I’m getting worried. Jim is highly qualified, but he has got to get his message out now.” Davis says more signs are coming, spinning the situation as a measure of his popularity.

Some Democrats question whether Davis is ready to take on Crist, who won 64 percent of the GOP primary vote and is making his fourth run for statewide office.In Davis’ defense, supporters say he has to spend much of his time raising money.

“They want to see him going around the state and getting big crowds together,” said Mike Moskowitz, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and Democratic fundraiser. “But people don’t understand that Jim is having to raise money.”

The contest between Davis and Crist formally began Sept. 6, the morning after the primary election, when the two Tampa Bay politicians left the general-election starting gate.

But unlike the marathon grind that ended with a low-turnout primary vote, the general election is a two-month sprint that plays out before a much larger audience.

***

From the outset, it has looked like an uneven match.

Crist had crushed Tom Gallagher by more than he had expected, a 2-1 ratio, and in his victory speech he reached out for his rival’s support.

Davis’ road to the nomination had been rockier. He overcame a barrage of critical TV ads funded by the sugar industry and had a much closer race with state Sen. Rod Smith, losing to him in the crucial counties of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

Like Bill McBride, who defeated Janet Reno four years ago, Davis won the Democratic nomination for governor despite weak showings among African-American voters and in vote-rich South Florida.

It was an ominous sign.

In those first days after the primary, both men were consumed with their first big decision: choosing a running mate. Crist played it safe with the choice of Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, a likeable but bland trial lawyer from Cape Coral.

Davis decided on Daryl Jones, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, former state senator and 2002 candidate for governor who would be the first African-American running mate in Florida history.

“There’s excitement here. Can you feel it?” Democratic Party chairwoman Karen Thurman said as she entered a library in Fort Lauderdale where Davis introduced Jones on Sept. 14.

The choice of Jones energized Davis, too. His stump speech is more polished and forceful and he never misses an opportunity to note that, unlike Crist, he and Jones are fathers and homeowners.

Even against that backdrop, the pace of the two campaigns present a striking contrast. As Crist sprinted from one high-dollar fundraiser to another, Davis was still reeling from blows delivered in the primary.

After being publicly lectured by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings on the morning after his victory over Smith, Davis went to Miami to apologize to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, wrongfully convicted black men whose case for compensation he opposed as a state legislator 16 years earlier.

Both men praised Davis for his courage. But a full week was lost, and by then Crist was winning over disaffected Democrats who liked the Republican’s accessible campaign style or decided that Davis couldn’t win.

***

Crist has seemed more nimble than Davis.

While Crist hopscotched to three TV markets on a unity fly-around with Gallagher on Sept. 7, two days after the primary, it took the Democrats three crucial weeks to arrange a single unity event between Davis and Smith.

The low-key, poorly-attended rally was held Sept. 26 in Smith’s hometown of Gainesville in one of the state’s smallest TV markets. No other top Democrats on the ticket were there.

Smith, who spent time at his North Carolina vacation home before returning to work, played down talk of disunity, though some of his supporters defected to Crist. Smith said he plans to get out on the road with Davis, but no plans are set.

Then there’s the one-sided TV ad campaign.

“In a state as big as Florida, if you’re not on TV, you don’t exist,” Crist said.

Davis is set to finally answer today with a pair of 15-second spots paid for by the Florida Democratic Party. They highlight his plan to de-emphasize the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and to lower property taxes by $1-billion.

“These ads are short, simple and direct,” Davis told reporters Monday, “and there’s a reason for that: The difference between Charlie and me on these two critical issues are simple and direct.”

The conference call with reporters underscored Davis’ cautious nature. He resisted questions about the specifics of his property tax relief plan, saying they would come today. For months, he has told reporters that he is looking into repealing corporate tax exemptions.

Crist has played it safe, too. Last week, when discussing his proposal to provide tax relief to homesteaded property owners, he deflected a question that pointed out his plan would do nothing for businesses and rental property owners being hurt the most under the state’s real estate boom.

“Give us a chance,” Crist said. “We can’t do everything at once.”

Even with his big-money TV ad campaign and his overwhelming fundraising advantage, Crist does not overlook small details. He dutifully hands out bumper stickers at events, repeating his claim that each one is “worth seven votes.”

In Broward, still a Democratic stronghold but home to nearly 300,000 Republicans, Crist has five campaign offices and Davis has one.

***

Money is the oxygen that keeps a statewide campaign breathing. A week of saturation TV advertising in the major TV markets costs $1.2-million. Davis has been trying to stockpile his money so his ads today will be followed by others continuously through Election Day.

Democratic strategist Jim Krog, a lobbyist and veteran of Lawton Chiles’ 1990 and 1994 campaigns, said Davis needs a clear message and crisp execution, especially on hot-button issues such as education, taxes and property insurance.

“The calculus on that is not simple because Crist ran a general election in the primary. He went to the middle,” Krog said, “which makes it a little more difficult to get separation.”

Krog holds out hope that Democrats can capitalize on a restless, anti-incumbent mood or take advantage of overconfidence by Republicans.

“There’s no real fire to the message,” lawyer-lobbyist Tom Panza said of Davis. The veteran Democratic fundraiser switched sides and now supports Crist after his candidate, Smith, lost to Davis.

Day after day, viewers across Florida see Crist’s party-funded ads that define Davis as a liberal who opposes cutting taxes. The ads helped Crist open a double-digit lead in recent polls, and he has been steadily outpacing Davis at raising the soft money that keeps the party-financed TV ads on the air.

After raising $3.3-million with President Bush in Orlando on Sept. 21, Crist has been on an extended merry-go-round of fundraisers from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa to Washington.

Some Democrats are slow to write fresh $500 checks to Davis for the general election. Yet they have been generous to Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for chief financial officer.

Betty Castor, the Democrats’ 2004 U.S. Senate candidate, speculated that some Democrats may see the Sink race as more competitive.

But it’s not all gloomy for Davis.

He is coming off a big week for fundraising, gathering about $500,000 for his own coffers and the party in South Florida alone, according to spokesman Josh Earnest.

The numbers do not reflect a fundraiser Saturday night in Miami with former presidential nominee John Kerry. And this week, Davis will appear at fundraisers with former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

“It takes time, but it’s coming,” Davis said.

The campaign is also looking forward to two televised debates later this month and plans to roll out more policy proposals. And it plans to organize more public events, such as town hall meetings, to generate media coverage.
Davis said he was comfortable where the campaign stands, the pace he has set.

“The folks who are going to decide this election,” he said Monday, “are just starting to pay attention.”

 Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet is at bousquet@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505.

[Last modified October 2, 2006, 23:25:15]


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