MIAMI — In a quietly arranged phone call Wednesday night, about 80 black elected officials backing Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek got their marching orders.
"I told them not to buy into the illusion that Kendrick can't win," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who made his own historic bid for the U.S. Senate four decades ago. "I told them about the historic significance of having an African-American candidate win in the South and setting the stage for President (Barack) Obama's re-election in 2012. I told them to tell any candidate that comes through their area that they can't support them unless they are visibly supporting Meek."
On paper, the 44-year-old Meek appears to be a dream candidate for the Democratic Party: A loyal disciple in Congress and the Florida Legislature known for scuffling with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The first statewide candidate to qualify for the Florida ballot by gathering voter signatures, about 125,000 in all. The victorious underdog in last month's Democratic primary against a hard-charging billionaire.
Still, Crist — who cast off his lifelong Republican affiliation just five months ago to avert a drubbing by Marco Rubio in the GOP primary — continues to peel away enough Democrats to keep Meek at bay. But the tide is turning, according to a Mason-Dixon poll released Saturday that showed Meek in striking distance of Crist.
The survey found Rubio expanding his lead to 40 percent, Crist slipping to 28 percent and Meek rising to 23 percent. The Sept. 20-22 survey of 625 likely voters has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Meek "has an outside chance to pull off a major comeback, but it is largely predicated on his ability to convince Crist's newfound Democratic friends that the former Republican's campaign is hopeless and it is time for them to come back to their party," said Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker. "That will be a tough challenge, but it is now the only apparent way for Rubio to lose."
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In a contest led by a Cuban-American, Meek said he doesn't think his race is a factor. He is the country's only major black U.S. Senate candidate. If elected, he would become the first black senator from Florida; the only one on Capitol Hill.
In the post-Obama world, Meek does not mention these facts on the campaign trail. His team concluded race was not an issue after doing focus groups earlier this year with college students in Orlando and senior citizens in Tampa.
"I'm not running to make history," Meek said. "I'm running because I want to give everyday people a voice in the political process."
Unlike Crist and Rubio, Meek opposes the tax cuts enacted under former President George W. Bush for the wealthiest Americans and favors the health care overhaul that is going into effect. He calls himself the candidate for the "people who take the early bus'' and has made a point of shaking hands with nursing home employees, cafeteria workers and other union members before dawn.
It's been a long haul. Meek declared himself a candidate in front of his Miami Gardens home on Jan. 13, 2009, even before Obama's inauguration. Democrats were euphoric after turning Florida blue and capturing the White House.
Twenty months later, the conservative tea party movement has knocked out incumbents in primaries nationwide and Republican voters appear ready to send another message in November. In the primary, about 350,000 more GOP voters than Democrats went to the polls.
"I know the naysayers say we can't. I say we can," said Meek, who is giving up the safe seat in Congress he inherited from his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. "I say that because I'm going to work harder than other candidates in this race."
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Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who headed Obama's successful 2008 campaign in Florida, said Meek needs a robust Democratic showing to persevere in a three-way race. The Mason-Dixon poll found Meek with 44 percent of the Democratic vote, compared with Rubio with 75 percent of the Republicans.
Today, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler is expected to endorse Crist in appearances at heavily Democratic retirement communities in Boca Raton and Tamarac.
"For Meek and for Rubio, it will come down to who has the most solid base," Schale said. "Crist has to stop Meek from a solid Democratic turnout while clawing Republican voters back."
Meek had $2.6 million in the bank at the end of June — most of which he used to beat back primary rival Jeff Greene — compared with Rubio, with $4.5 million, and Crist, with $8 million. While the national Republican Party is pumping $2.5 million into Florida for Rubio, Meek has not received a similar commitment from Washington.
He has, however, organized a friendly conga line by the party's top statesmen. First came former President Bill Clinton, then President Obama. Vice President Joe Biden was at his side Friday, and former Vice President Al Gore is coming this week to Tampa.
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The parade of establishment figures is aimed at voters like Natalie Mayeri of Pembroke Pines, who says she was "born a Democrat'' but plans to vote for Crist.
"Meek is weak," the 90-year-old Mayeri whispered after hearing Crist speak at her retirement community last week. "Meek hasn't done anything in office. … I think he means well but Crist is the stronger of the two."
It's not uncommon to find Democrats who view Meek as a lackluster congressman riding his mother's coattails. His career was blemished when a developer for whom he sought federal budget earmarks, Dennis Stackhouse, was charged with stealing $1 million from a failed project in his district.
A prominent Democratic fundraiser who is backing Crist, Orlando attorney John Morgan, told MSNBC earlier this month: "The only votes Kendrick Meek will get are from African-Americans and those who just see a 'D' next to the candidate's name and vote Democratic."
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Even if Meek rarely talks about race, it has shaped his life in powerful ways. He was raised in one of Miami's blackest and poorest neighborhoods, Liberty City. His mother was the first black woman in the Florida Senate and one of the first black members of Congress from Florida since Reconstruction.
"I taught him to be proud of his blackness," said Carrie Meek, the granddaughter of a slave and daughter of a sharecropper who grew up in "Black Bottom," a poor section of Tallahassee. "He didn't come up with any deep prejudices, like I did, being from the deep South. … He never seemed to resent people."
Classmates taunted Meek not for being black, but for being dyslexic. Meek says he would not have made it to college without a football scholarship. After only two years as a state trooper, when his mother was in the Legislature, Gov. Lawton Chiles tapped him for a security detail. Meek jumped over two ranks to become the patrol's first black captain.
He made a name for himself as a state lawmaker in 2000, when he helped lead a sit-in outside Gov. Jeb Bush's office over a proposed ban on racial preferences in state contracts and university admissions.
Meek was all but handed his mother's seat in Congress when she unexpectedly retired in 2002. He has easily won re-election three times. While the Meek name is widely known in Miami, the congressman has struggled to raise his profile beyond South Florida.
"He's enduring without help from the national party," said state Sen. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, who helped lead the sit-in in Bush's office. "He's enduring hearing about lifelong Democrats endorsing Crist. He's enduring the questions about why can't he close the deal.
"I want you to quote me on this: The race is not won by the swift but by he who endures to the end," Hill said. "Kendrick is in this for the long haul. He's enduring."
Beth Reinhard can be reached at email@example.com.