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Events denying Davis a spotlight

The Democrat needs headlines to narrow a governor's race gap, but the other party's scandal is grabbing them.

By ADAM C. SMITH and ALEX LEARY
Published October 10, 2006


Jim Davis could be the only Democrat in America actually hurt by the Mark Foley scandal.

At a time when the Democratic gubernatorial nominee is struggling to ignite some excitement and draw attention to his race against Republican front-runner Charlie Crist, the congressional page scandal makes it even harder for Davis to grab the spotlight.

"The Foley scandal has taken a week of airtime out of what was in essence a five-week general election campaign," Democratic consultant Derek Newton said. "And when you're the guy behind, you need every news cycle you can get."

Even before Foley's sudden resignation from Congress, the first wide-open Florida governor's race since 1990 had been flying beneath the radar for much of the public. One month before the election Davis still remains little-known to most voters.

"It's the best-kept secret in town," Ginger Grossman, a Democratic activist in Miami-Dade County, said of the Davis campaign for which she is volunteering. She said the local campaign office lacks signs, literature and buttons, and that Democrats are clamoring for Davis get more aggressive.

The Davis campaign insists that he has received plenty of positive publicity recently on his plans to cut property taxes and revamp school testing and that the Foley scandal boosts his message that voters need a change.

"The Foley scandal is one more indication that the status quo isn't working for people, and the ruling party in Washington is the same ruling party as in Florida," said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Davis campaign.

But the problem for Davis is that voters are hearing a lot from Attorney General Crist through TV ads, while Davis, with much less money, has been virtually invisible for weeks. The latest Washington scandal makes it all the harder for Davis to break out.

Davis' challenge was visible Saturday at a Teamsters picnic in Sunrise. Working the crowd under a sprawling white tent, Davis was clearly unknown to many. "Who are you?" a man with a plate of pulled pork asked, not catching Davis' first introduction.

"Who the heck was that guy?" Brad Layne, 48, asked his friends after Davis passed. No one at the table had heard of Davis, but all said they had seen Crist's TV ads. Even so, none of the four men said they were interested in the race this year. "We're just here for the free beer," Layne joked.

Pat Mastro, 56, cited the Foley scandal: "It's everywhere: the newspapers, TV, the Internet. Everyone is focused on him. It's taking away focus on the candidates."

A dispatcher for a concrete company, Mastro said he knew a fair amount about Davis but conceded the race hasn't excited him. "To say I'm keeping up with it, I'd be lying to you. It just hasn't been hyped up."

Jim Krog, a veteran Democratic strategist in Tallahassee, said this appears to be one of those rare elections where even state races get nationalized.

"What's dominating are national issues. This is not unlike 1998 in a lot of ways," he said, when the governor's race featured Jeb Bush and Buddy MacKay. "What dominated the press at that point? Clinton, Lewinsky and Ken Starr, and it made that race a lower-focused race also."

Even some of Davis' highest-profile events are nationalized. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama received loads of coverage campaigning with Davis last week. On Friday, Sen. Hillary Clinton will campaign with Davis.

Meanwhile, Crist looks very much like a front-runner trying to run out the clock. He's avoiding joint appearances with Davis and doing little to generate much publicity, while quietly raising loads of money.

"The Crist campaign has been completely unwilling to appear on the same stage as Jim Davis," said Josh Earnest, Davis' communications director.

Davis, leaving the Teamsters picnic on Saturday, was optimistic.

"People are just starting to pay attention," he said. "I talked to a waitress this morning and she said, 'Yeah, there's a governor's race coming up and there's this guy Davis and this guy Crist.' I said, 'I'm Davis.' She said, 'Oh yeah, I've got to read up on you.' "

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