Wake up, debate is tonight

The boring gubernatorial race may get a jolt when Crist and Davis face off.

Published October 24, 2006

DAVIE - As a new poll points to a dead heat in the governor's race, Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat Jim Davis face off tonight for their first televised debate.

And it couldn't come a moment too soon for one of the most muted and disappointing governor's races Florida has seen in a long time.

Finally, voters tonight have a chance to find some substance beyond the 30-second TV ads that have defined the first wide-open governor's race since 1990. With two weeks before election day, tonight's 8 p.m. debate on public television offers voters an opportunity to size up the would-be successors to Gov. Jeb Bush, who have done little to capture voters' imagination.

The contrast between this governor's race and previous ones is striking.

By this time in 1998, Jeb Bush and Buddy MacKay had twice debated on TV and once on radio. Bush had rolled out a slew of ambitious policy proposals, including sweeping changes in Florida's education system. By this time in 2002, Bush and Bill McBride had debated live on TV and radio and their running mates had debated on TV.

Instead of thick white papers laying out their agendas, as we have seen before, the candidates this year are mostly relying on multimillion-dollar TV ad buys with sound bites and snarky e-mails to news outlets. Instead of periodic rallies drawing hundreds of people at a time, Crist and Davis often stage events with a couple dozen people, at most.

On Saturday, Davis showed up at a St. Petersburg home for a "Backyard Rebellion" that seemed more like a weakly planned backyard barbecue - without the good food. Davis showed up on time but waited in the house 30 minutes until the crowd grew from eight to two dozen, most of them hard-core Democratic activists.

Crist on the campaign trail often gives more specifics on the importance of campaign bumper stickers than what he intends to do as governor.

At a Hispanic supermarket in Orlando Wednesday, three TV cameras followed him around as he made his characteristic small talk. When store co-owner Cesar Ramirez showed Crist a display of coconut juice, Crist said: "Wow! Coconut juice! You just don't find that everywhere."

Crist spotted a local reporter, Lydia Guzman, in the crowd and called to her by name: "Lydia, you like mangoes? I used to be allergic to mangoes."

Moderate candidates

At a time when voters are anxious or angry about insurance bills, taxes and overcrowded schools and roads, this, on all too many days, is what passes for a governor's race.

This and constant TV ads, especially from Crist, who is shattering fundraising records.

"One candidate has a 30-second ad promising to do something about insurance. The other candidate has a 30-second ad promising to do something about insurance. About all the voter has to judge is which candidate's ads do they see more," lamented Mitchell Berger, a top fundraiser for Davis.

Part of the lackluster nature of the campaign stems from having two moderates pitted against each other who show few profound differences. National and international problems are also sucking up much of the oxygen, and polls have fed a perception that a Gov. Crist is inevitable.

Lagging well behind in money and name recognition, Davis received a major boost Monday with the release of an Oct. 18-22 Quinnipiac University poll showing him statistically tied with Crist at 44 percent to Crist's 46 percent.

"The Florida governor's election is now a real horse race," said Quinnipiac's Peter Brown.

If so, that probably has much more to do with the widespread dissatisfaction with Republicans nationally than Davis' anemic campaign.

"There's absolutely no reason for Jim Davis to be any closer than 10 to 15 percent. He's barely on TV, and he has very little name recognition," said Fort Lauderdale pollster Jim Kane. "The fact that he's in the game shows you what's going on with the political climate nationally."

An Oct. 16-21 poll for the Florida Chamber of Commerce by the Washington Cromer Group released Monday showed Crist leading with 49 percent to Davis' 38 percent among registered voters. A Mason-Dixon poll released late last week showed a similar lead for Crist.

Differing styles

Crist may be the most natural and charming politician in modern Florida history. But as much as he likes to laud Jeb Bush, he is in many ways the opposite of Bush, who touted "big, hairy, audacious goals" such as grading schools, student vouchers to private school and overhauling the way judges are chosen.

There is no big, bold agenda coming from Crist.

Bush would seize on the controversial or even unpopular positions and run with them, often successfully. Crist, in contrast, aggressively avoids specifics and controversy. Lately, he's also been avoiding debates and joint appearances, frequently citing scheduling conflicts.

Scheduling conflicts? Unless he's talking about megafundraisers, we haven't seen many campaign events that couldn't easily be rearranged.

"I'm a huge Charlie Crist supporter, but why in the world does he need $30-million for the general election, when he already spent $15-million in the primary?" asked former Republican state Sen. Curt Kiser. "Where is all this money going? Everything is going into 30-second ads. There's no substance in any of these, they're more about personality."

Davis' best shot

The debate tonight and the final one on NBC stations Oct. 30 are probably Davis' best shots at overcoming Crist's advantage. But the prospect that brash outsider Max Linn, the Reform Party candidate seeking to join the debate through the courts, could be given a lectern tonight may very well scramble the dynamic for Crist and for Davis.

Davis casts himself as the candidate of substance though it took him a year to flesh out his agenda for insurance and tax reform, but he can come off as stiff. Crist is charismatic and has an innate sense of voters' concerns.

There's no clear favorite in this debate, but at least we can hope for give and take that gets us beyond the 30-second ads and press releases. It sure would be a welcome change for the final stretch of the campaign.

Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727)893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.