Who Will Win?by Palm Beach Post Staff | November 5th, 2006
TAMPA — Maybe Jim Davis should just go ahead and declare victory. Name a transition team. Act as if Charlie Crist has no real chance of becoming Florida’s 44th governor Tuesday.
That was some of the thinking going on in the Davis campaign last week after the Democratic candidate for governor finally began to emerge as a serious threat to Crist.
After months of lagging behind the Republican nominee, Davis supporters are sensing a political tailwind. They are buoyed by what they believe were two very successful television debates and the new, sharper edge of the Davis campaign.
Now Davis strategists want to use those things to get Democrats excited so they will turn out in large numbers Tuesday, especially in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where nearly a third of the state’s 4.2 million Democrats live.
”We know we have to turn out the vote in South Florida,” said Scott Maddox, former state Democratic Party chairman. ”And you have to get them energized.”
Which is one reason some Davis strategists began talking privately about publicly naming a transition team. ”It would be one way to let people know that we really believe we can win,” said one senior Davis adviser.
Even a top consultant for Gov. Jeb Bush said that, if Davis has any chance of winning on Tuesday, he needs to persuade voters, especially Democrats, that his victory is all but assured.
”If you look like you are going to lose, you are going to lose,” said Cory Tilley, a Crist supporter who has been a top strategist for Bush since 1993. ”The key thing Davis needs to do now is inject some optimism so voters believe he can win.”
And although most polls still show Davis behind, there is more than a glimmer of hope among Democrats who believe that Crist, the GOP nominee, is a flawed candidate.
Davis insiders also find some solace in the knowledge that a poll taken for Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson shows Davis within 5 points of Crist, whose own internal polls show Crist leading by 8 points as the campaign entered the weekend.
”I’m starting to see Democrats get excited,” said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of Broward County’s 466,000 Democrats. ”I think a lot of Republicans are going to be in for a surprise on Election Day.”
If Crist is worried, he is not showing it. His campaign has the same air of expectation that it had during the Republican primary, which he won with 64 percent of the vote. Davis won his primary with just 47 percent of the vote.
Last week, holding a microphone in the Kings Point clubhouse in Sun City Center, Crist, his red-striped necktie loose, his white dress shirt crisp with sleeves rolled up, ended his routine stump speech with an unexpected finish.
Urging the three dozen Republican retirees to vote and tell their friends to vote, Crist then said, ”It’s important because this is probably going to be an eight-year decision that Florida is about to make. That’s a long time. That’s a long time. So we got to make sure we make the right decision for Florida.”
Later, when asked why he said eight years when a governor is elected for a four-year term, Crist gave a big smile. ”It could be. A lot of the time people elected governor get reelected.”
And he repeated the eight-year phrase at another appearance a day later.
Translation: Crist believes he’s not only going to win in 2006, he believes he is going to win in 2010. Or at least he wants voters to believe that.
If Tilley and Maddox are right – that one key to victory is persuading voters that you are winner – Crist is more than willing to take the helm.
”You have to believe in yourself,” Crist said. ”And you have to give people a reason to believe in you, to believe that you’ll work hard for them every day and try to do the right thing.”
Doing the right thing has involved prodigious amounts of cash. On Friday, Crist reported that he has raised $19.6 million for his campaign. Davis raised $6.8 million. The nearly 3-1 cash advantage has enabled Crist to create a public image, sell it on television and inoculate himself from attack.
Much of Crist’s money has been used to attack Davis, portraying the Tampa-area congressman as someone who rarely shows up in Washington to do his job, who likes to raise taxes and would do nothing to lower property insurance. And as millions were being spent to create this image of Davis in the mind of voters, all Davis could do was watch.
Crist’s enormous campaign war chest, supplemented by millions more from the Republican Party, allowed Crist to stay on television nearly nonstop since winning the Sept. 5 primary. Davis didn’t get on the air until October. Even then, there were days when he had no commercials on the air or very few.
Since Sept. 1, the state Republican Party has raised $40.2 million, bringing its total since Jan. 1 to $55 million. The Democratic Party raised $14.7 since Sept. 1, bringing its total for the year to nearly $26 million.
It’s the kind of imbalance that frustrates Democrats, who sometimes throw up their hands if they don’t believe their candidate is showing them all the trappings of major a campaign, especially television.
At a Gainesville fund-raiser, Eric Han, the owner of the Chinese restaurant hosting the luncheon, wondered: ”How come the other guy has got signs everywhere and is on TV all the time?”
Davis faces restrictions
Raising money has not been easy for Davis. As a member of Congress, he faced stricter restrictions on raising cash than Crist. And several top Davis supporters and insiders complained that Nelson, who raised more than $17 million, was not doing enough to help Davis. They noted that Nelson is far ahead of Katherine Harris, his Republican challenger, and argue that Nelson doesn’t need all his cash to defeat her. But Nelson did give money to the Florida Democratic Party, and he helped raise more for the party.
Some Davis insiders say he has been a victim of Democratic donor weariness. Bush easily defeated the party’s last two nominees for governor, Bill McBride in 2002 and Buddy MacKay in 1998. Some Democrats joked privately that the party was about to complete a trio of losses, ”MacKay, McBride and McDavis.”
”Some of our people are just burned out from losing,” said a Democrat helping Davis raise money.
Another factor is that Florida’s Republican leaders played hardball with anyone thinking about giving to Davis. And Crist himself made it clear that he would remember those who opposed him. When he heard rumors FPL might support Davis, he said, ”I don’t want their damn money.”
But almost everyone who does business in Tallahassee has given money to Crist, who insists that just because special interests have contributed to him, those same interests will not receive special treatment if he is elected governor.
”They adopt my agenda. I don’t adopt theirs,” Crist says.
His campaign is so flush with cash that Crist has spent money on thousands of footballs, drinking cups, shirts, yard signs and countless bumper stickers that he loves to personally stick on the cars of supporters. He has so much cash to spend that he even bought three six-story banners – featuring his face – that hung from downtown office buildings in Tampa and St. Petersburg until local officials said they violated sign ordinances.
”If we lose, it will be partly because of Crist’s gifts as a campaigner, Jeb Bush’s popularity and because of money,” said a senior Davis adviser.
Both sides optimistic
After two statewide television debates that earned Davis high marks, his campaign believes voters are taking a more critical look at Crist.
Davis got an unanticipated break in the second televised debate against Crist when moderator Chris Matthews, of MSNBC’s Hardball, spent a significant chunk of the hour asking the candidates about President Bush and the Iraq war.
Crist had spent the campaign avoiding both subjects, which polls showed were nearly as unpopular with Florida voters as they were nationally. Crist, as the Republican, was forced to defend both, even giving the president a letter grade of B.
Davis, who had failed to gain much traction linking Crist to the still-popular Jeb Bush, suddenly had a new line: ”The only two people in America still saying ‘Stay the course’ are George W. Bush and Charlie Crist.”
Davis also hoped that, by focusing on the rising cost of property insurance, higher property taxes and problems with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, he could make Crist take the blame, saying ”he did nothing” while in Tallahassee to fix the problems. He also accused Crist of not speaking out when insurance companies won legislation making it easier for them to increase rates.
But Crist fired back, using television commercials saying that a vote for Davis would mean higher taxes while a vote for Crist would mean lower taxes. And he called Davis’ property insurance plan ”risky.”
Although some polls indicated that the gap is closing, Crist repeatedly said last week, ”There has not been a single poll showing him ahead.”
Davis insiders believe their candidate will benefit from increasing voter unhappiness with the Republican Party. But Crist insiders say their polls are showing little of the so-called ”Democratic wave,” in part because Gov. Bush remains popular in Florida. And they do not see any significant shift of independent voters to the Democrats.
Karl Koch, a Davis strategist, says the Crist campaign has it all wrong.
”The polls show us closing right now, and independents are moving in droves away from Charlie,” Koch said. ”The next step is for them to move to Davis.”
Koch said a combination of strong Democratic turnout and a significant move by independents to Davis will give the Democrats the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1998.
Koch, who worked in the campaigns of Gov. Lawton Chiles and MacKay, said Republicans do a better job of holding their voters in line and Democratic voters are slower to commit to a candidate.
”Democrats have to fall in love first,” he said.
And now, Davis is giving them a reason for romance.
”He’s digging deep right now,” Koch said of Davis. ”He’s becoming a fierce campaigner.”
Although Tilley does not believe Davis is going to win, he said Davis must be a fierce campaigner in the final days if he is going to have any chance.
”At this point, if you are Jim Davis, you don’t rest,” Tilley said. ”You need to campaign 24 hours a day.”