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By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published October 25, 2006
DAVIE - It was the "happy warrior" Charlie Crist vs. the stern fighter Jim Davis, and their first televised debate did little to shift the race dramatically.
That could be bad news for Davis, the underdog Democrat who still came off as sharp, substantive and better-equipped with specifics than Republican Attorney General Crist. Even with one poll showing Davis effectively tied with Crist - others show Crist comfortably ahead - the Tampa congressman needed to land some big blows to help combat Crist's huge fundraising lead and presence on TV.
The ever sunny Crist once again showed himself a natural on TV, using simple language to connect with average voters and looking friendly even as he repeatedly hammered Davis for missing congressional votes while running for governor.
"He doesn't show up, and unfortunately he doesn't work very hard," Crist said.
For a candidate who used to sound like he had a teleprompter embedded in his skull, Davis has dramatically improved. Some viewers might be more drawn to Crist's optimism, but at a time when many voters are furious over insurance and tax bills, Davis' stern, antistatus-quo style and message may well resonate more.
"For four years he did nothing, and they have record prices and record profits," Davis said of the attorney general's dealings with insurance companies. "Insurance companies have given $2-million to his campaign because they want to stay the course. They like record prices and record profits."
Among the biggest challenges for Davis is trying to knock down a candidate who's moderate and agrees with him on so many hot-button issues - supporting embryonic stem cell research, raising teacher pay, standing by the class size reduction amendment. Touting the importance of tolerance and compassion, and hitting Davis for not supporting compensation for two wrongfully convicted African-Americans 16 years ago, Crist sounded at times as much like a Democrat as Davis.
But Davis scored points when he repeatedly pressed Crist for not supporting tax relief for businesses and renters, and oddly Crist has yet to offer much of an answer for that. Crist has also sounded more flexible and open to tinkering with the FCAT than he did Tuesday night, giving no hint that he was open to changing anything about how the test is implemented.
"If we are willing to grade 9 and 10-year-old children, we ought to be able to grade the schools that are supposed to perform for those children," Crist said.
Jim Davis has been saying for months that voters are just starting to get to know him. He may have made a strong impression on some of those strangers Tuesday, and gave his supporters reason for excitement in the final stretch. Still, Crist walked away looking only slightly less like a clear frontrunner.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 727893--8675.
[Last modified October 25, 2006, 01:44:31]