In the frenzied homestretch before Tuesday's primary, U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek made a detour into tiny Holmes County to have lunch with a single Democratic Party leader.
The meal was worth it, Meek said, and not just for the fried chicken wings.
"I gave him 10 yard signs and he said he knew exactly where to put them," the Miami congressman told about 50 voters in Port Richey during a recent statewide bus tour. "You can't buy a nomination in the state of Florida."
Or can you?
His Democratic competitor, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, is dwarfing Meek's modest advertising budget with a television and mail blitz. A similarly lopsided dynamic is playing out in the Republican gubernatorial primary, in which Naples corporate executive Rick Scott is overpowering Attorney General Bill McCollum on the air.
"At some point in a campaign, it isn't all about television," said McCollum, who argued that endorsements and volunteers motivate more voters than 30-second spots. "It's about people talking to each other."
But in the fourth-most populous state, where media markets even cross time zones, campaigns are typically waged and won on the air, not on the ground. Both Scott and Greene have used their personal fortunes and antiestablishment messages to top the polls, though McCollum and Meek appear to be closing the gap.
"I still think retail politics is an important ingredient because people want to feel and touch the candidate and see that they're a real person," said Republican strategist Mike Hanna, who raised money for Tom Gallagher's losing gubernatorial bid in 2006 against the better-financed Charlie Crist. "But there's a throw-the-bums-out atmosphere, and people are seeing a lot of those other guys in their living rooms."
The television sweeps by the wealthy political rookies are astonishing: Scott has lavished about $38 million on the air in just 16 weeks, compared with about $13 million by McCollum and his allies. Greene has spent about $11 million, more than five times as much as Meek.
In the final days of the campaign, McCollum said, he might come close to matching Scott on TV, and roughly 400 Republican activists from each of the state's 67 counties will help put him over the top.
What Scott lacks in ties to the party apparatus, he makes up for with his checkbook. Campaign reports show Scott has spent about $91,000 on 111 "contract laborers'' who helped out at events and waved campaign signs. They include Kayla Westbrook, a 19-year-old Florida State University student, who wore a pink "Rick's Chicks'' T-shirt at a Tallahassee event in July and received $283.87 for her time and expenses.
In contrast, McCollum volunteer Toni Vanorman, 66, is calling voters and knocking on doors for free in Jacksonville Beach. "We can motivate volunteers," she said. "That is something money can't buy."
Scott has seven regional campaign offices where both volunteers and paid workers have been calling voters since May, said campaign spokeswoman Jen Baker. In recent weeks, Scott has ramped up a "chaser'' program in which anyone who requests an absentee ballot will receive several mailings and phone calls from the campaign.
"We've identified our voters, and we'll make sure they get to the polls," Baker said, declining to discuss Scott's grass roots operation in detail.
The winner is expected to face off Nov. 2 against Democrat Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer, and Lawton "Bud'' Chiles III, nonpartisan candidate.
"If Rick Scott were to win," McCollum said, "I think it's simply because he spent $50 million. That's about where he's headed — to buy the governor's office."
Not true, said Scott, who argued McCollum is beholden to special interests lining his campaign account. "I can't be bought," said Scott, who estimated his net worth at $218 million.
Greene, who is worth about $1.25 billion, makes the same argument.
"I've been running against the political establishment since the day I got into the race," Greene said Tuesday before meeting voters at a Cuban-American restaurant in Miami. ''I'm going to fight for the people of Florida."
The winner of the Democratic Senate race heads toward a showdown with Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running without party affiliation.
Greene's itinerary Tuesday was typical: a 10 a.m. appearance at the Cuban restaurant Versailles, followed by a 2 p.m. stop at a homeless shelter in West Palm Beach, not far from his home. Some days, his public schedule is blank. When he does leave South Florida, Greene takes his private plane to a major area like Orlando and returns the same day.
"That doesn't necessarily mean that someone isn't campaigning hard enough," said Greene spokesman Luis Vizcaino. "He has a 10-month-old baby he wants to get home to every night."
Meek boasts of spending countless nights at the "Dew Drop Inn'' on some Florida highway since he got into the race 19 months ago. He spent the first year collecting roughly 125,000 signatures from voters around the state to qualify for the ballot, instead of paying a fee.
"How many of you have seen a Jeff Greene yard sign? You don't see them," Meek told a crowd in a Lakeland union hall. "How many Jeff Greene bumper stickers you see? You don't see them."
Several in the crowd, however, said they had gotten phone calls from the Greene campaign.
As a man was ducking out early with one yard sign instead of the requested two, Meek spotted him. "You need one more sign. You only have one," Meek said.
Greene said that his campaign includes a "huge grass roots effort'' but that he had to spend a lot of money on television to quickly raise his profile.
"It's a very big state and I got a very late start," he said. "We have yard signs and all the usual stuff. I haven't counted how many yard signs I have and how many he has. We are getting our message out."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.