PERRY — Alex Sink quickly identifies the bulldog mascot on Wanda Kemp's denim shirt and asks about the Friday night high school game.
"Who y'all playing?" Sink asks. "I hear you're undefeated."
In a state politically dominated by the cities and suburbs along Interstate 4, Sink often struggles to deliver the snappy sound bites favored by newscasts in Florida's major media markets.
But in the conservative belt of rural North Florida, home to about 20 percent of the state's voters, Sink is affable and seems at ease slapping backs, shaking hands and selling her Democratic campaign for governor.
"I grew up on a tobacco farm," she said in Perry. "Tobacco, cows, hogs — whatever my daddy could make money at. Year by year, it was a big decision."
The 35 counties in this stretch of the state, from the Panhandle east to Jacksonville and south to Marion County, are a stronghold for Republican statewide candidates. But Sink, a Tampa Bay resident, hopes her Southern charm will help deliver the same relative success as her 2006 campaign for state chief financial officer, when she saturated North Florida with radio ads featuring her twangy accent.
In that race, Sink collected 48.3 percent of the vote in North Florida.
"It carried me right into the CFO office," Sink said during a Marianna campaign stop last week. "And that's why today I have the humble opportunity to be your next governor."
Sink's vote total here was 20 percent greater than Jim Davis, her party's candidate for governor that year. Barack Obama won just 41.7 percent of this part of the state in 2008.
"She won't get wiped out, which is usually what happens to Democrats in North Florida," said David Murrell, executive director of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents many of the prison workers in North Florida.
But Republican Rick Scott believes he'll win North Florida by the wide margins traditionally delivered to GOP candidates. And the primary election results appear to give Scott reason for hope.
In Central and South Florida, roughly 1 million Republicans cast primary ballots, and Scott lost in those regions to Attorney General Bill McCollum by 549 votes.
But among the 300,000 ballots cast in North Florida, Scott won by 36,000 votes.
"We started April 9 and no one knew us," Scott said during a recent fundraiser at Captain Anderson's restaurant in Panama City. "There's a lot of people in this room who went out of their way to be helpful. There's a reason we won by such a wide margin."
Scott's conservative platform and the $70 million he's on pace to spend has some North Floridians concerned about Sink's chances. Scott has already spent $60 million, including $3.6 million last week, according to campaign reports filed Friday.
"I'm not really confident, but I'm very hopeful," said Taylor County Commissioner Rudy Parker, a Democrat. "I think she'll win, but I wouldn't put any money on that."
On Friday, Sink visited five counties in the Big Bend, the stretch of the Gulf Coast that connects Central Florida to the Panhandle. Sink's campaign said she has now campaigned in all 67 counties this year.
On Friday, Sink's campaign also debuted a TV ad aimed at North Florida. In the 30-second spot, Sink promises to hold BP accountable for the oil spill and says her economic plan will bring to Florida new businesses "like renewable energy, health care and biotech companies."
After Perry, she visited at a library in Mayo, a women's club in Trenton and the Cross City Correctional Institute. She finished the day with a cookout at the Hollinswood Ranch in Crystal River.
In Cross City, 65-year-old Eddie Crites, who voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, said he planned to vote for Sink this year. Crites, a Department of Corrections employee for 17 years, said he opposed Scott's plan to privatize prisons and pointed to the $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare fraud assessed Scott's former hospital company.
"He messed up his own company like that, why would we want to put him charge of the whole state?" Crites said.
Sink dismissed state statistics that show Republicans leading so far in early voting turnout, saying Democrats would surpass the GOP by the end of Election Day. She also pointed to the roughly 70 people who attended her event at Joyce's Main Street Cafe.
"How can we not win when we have a crowd like this in Taylor County?" Sink said.
In North Florida, Sink paints herself as a moderate Democrat, comparing herself to former governors Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles, both Democrats, and Bob Martinez, a Republican.
She mixes football metaphors into stump speech and attempts to strike a conservative chord, promising tax credits for businesses that hire Floridians and three-year deferments for new businesses.
In Perry, Sink said she would focus on rural issues more than any governor "since Bob Graham."
"Everything rural I'm going to focus on," Sink said. "I know you live here for a reason. It's God's Country."
Times/Herald reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this story.