TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats say this could be their best chance to win the governor's race since their last victory 16 years ago.
Their candidate, Alex Sink, has a long business resume to show off in a year when voters have consistently stripped career politicians of their offices. A united Democratic Party appears to be rowing in the same direction for her, while the Republican nominee, Rick Scott, has nursed wounds inflicted by $25 million in TV ads from his primary opponent.
Yet, Sink is no shoo-in. She's the underdog, a string of recent polls show.
"This is our best chance in years. And if we are not successful this year, certainly some type of change will be necessary," Broward County Democratic chairman Mitch Ceasar said.
Early complaints about Sink running a lackluster campaign subsided as she adopted a more aggressive strategy.
She named former state Sen. Rod Smith as her running mate a week before the primary. At the same time, she and the Florida Democratic Party opened a TV advertising campaign that has since averaged about $1.3 million per week.
But Sink has not eased concerns among Florida voters, who, like many Americans, are focusing their frustrations on Democratic candidates and President Barack Obama.
The poll-tracking website Pollster.com is following 13 races for governor this year. Among those are nine open races in states Obama won in 2008.
The Republican candidate is leading in five of those nine, including Florida. In a sixth, California, Democrat Jerry Brown has a 0.3 percent lead over Republican Meg Whitman.
"There is a 100 mile per hour gale-force wind pushing Rick Scott across the finish line. And for Alex Sink, her party designation is a cinder block around her neck," Sarasota County Republican chairman Joe Gruters said.
But Sink supporters disagree that the polls numbers reflect voter dissatisfaction with Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or Senate President Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"The national political mood is not to blame for how tight the race is," according to an internal campaign memo Friday from Sink's pollster, Hamilton Campaigns. "Instead, it is attributable to the over $60 million Scott has spent on television."
The memo said Sink, the state's elected chief financial officer, was up by 1 point in internal polls over Scott, a Naples businessman.
Those internal polls also showed 70 percent of Democrats said they were "very interested" in this election, compared with 63 percent four years ago.
"Despite the spotlight by national and state media on tea party-endorsed candidate Rick Scott," according to the memo. "Democrats are more interested in this year's election than the 2006 race where Katherine Harris also brought heightened negative attention to the campaign."
During the same time, however, Republican enthusiasm has increased by 16 percentage points — more than double that of Democrats.
"There is no argument Democrats can make that works right now with likely voters," Republican strategist Rick Wilson said. "What are they going to say? Let's continue with the Obama agenda? It's just a terrible environment."
But Democrats insist they have a compelling story to tell Florida voters.
The Florida Democratic Party has used the Florida Republicans' troubles — including the arrest of former state party chairman Jim Greer and the indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom — as the organizing principle in a coordinated campaign for their slate of Cabinet and legislative candidates.
Democrats hope interest in those issues will shift voter attention from Washington back to Tallahassee, where Republicans have controlled the state legislative and executive branches for the past 12 years.
"As we get closer to the election, the distinctions between state and national policies will become more and more clear," said Panama City Mayor Scott Clemons, a Democrat who Sink considered as her running mate.
Democrats delivered this message during a recent weeklong push that included knocking on the doors and phoning 350,000 voters. Another 50,000 were contacted during their so-called Knock Out Republican Corruption Day of Action on Sept. 25.
But Republicans in Florida have long held an advantage in organization and voter turnout. And GOP leaders say that will continue despite a turbulent year that included the ousting of Greer and tea party voters helping push sitting Gov. Charlie Crist out of the party.
In the past week, Republicans said, 1,150 volunteers made 160,000 phone calls to voters from 60 offices across the state.
Said former state Republican Party chairman Tom Slade, a co-chairman of the Scott campaign: "I feel very confident."
Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]