ORLANDO — State Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman on Saturday exhorted thousands of Democratic activists to start mobilizing to elect Alex Sink governor.
Sen. Bill Nelson told the Florida Democrats gathered for the 2009 Florida Democratic Convention at Walt Disney World that no election in 2010 is as important as the governor's race.
How about the Democrat whose name will be at the top of ballot in 2010, U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek?
"I'm excited about Alex. I'm undecided about Kendrick," said Miami Democrat Barbara Schwartz, echoing many other Florida Democrats skeptical about Meek's chances. "I don't know that he can beat Charlie (Crist), so I'm still looking for a strong statewide candidate."
The contrast is striking. Chief Financial Officer Sink has Florida Democrats more excited and confident about their chances of winning the Governor's Mansion than they've been in a decade. But just as Republican Crist no longer appears invincible, Meek is struggling to knock down the perception he can't win.
"I will tell you regardless of what you may hear, what they may say, what they may do in the future, we will win this race," Meek, 43, told a mostly empty ballroom Saturday.
The doubts about the Miami Democratic U.S. representative's ability to beat popular Gov. Crist were enough to persuade former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre to jump in the race last week.
"I am positive that Kendrick cannot win in November. Now he may be able to win in August (the primary), I don't know, but in my opinion Kendrick doesn't have the profile to win," Ferre said.
A 74-year-old candidate who lost his last three campaigns to be Miami-Dade mayor clearly looks like a long shot, but he's credible enough to stir plenty of buzz among party activists Saturday.
"The Republicans' worst nightmare is a Hispanic candidate for Senate," mused Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, whose clients include Bill Nelson and Alex Sink.
Former state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, even speculated another Democratic Senate candidate could emerge.
"Don't underestimate Kendrick. He's bright, and he's got crazy strong connections," Geller said. "But it is no certainty that he will be the Democratic nominee just as it is no certainty that Charlie Crist will be the Republican nominee."
Analysts say GOP likely to win seat
National political analysts rate Florida's open Senate race as a likely Republican win, largely because of Crist's high poll numbers and the lack of a Democrat with statewide name recognition. Polls consistently show Crist beating Meek by at least 20 percentage points.
"Charlie Crist is a successful politician who is very hard to run against," said Bob Goldstein, president of the Democrats of South Dade. "Kendrick has a problem now with these other Democratic candidates potentially taking liberal votes away from him."
Part of the renewed talk about alternatives to Meek, however, is the sense among Democrats that Crist could be more vulnerable than previously thought. Republican Marco Rubio is gaining traction among Republican activists and no longer looks like a hopeless primary challenge to Crist.
"I do not think it's even a lock any more that Charlie Crist is the Republican nominee," said Bill Fletcher, Ferre's Nashville-based campaign strategist. "And what happens when it's Marco Rubio vs. Maurice Ferre, two Hispanic candidates? In that situation, Maurice shapes up as the classic Florida candidate who appeals to independent voters and those along the I-4 corridor."
The Meek campaign dismissed talk of a serious primary challenge and questions about his general election strength.
Meek's team pointed to an internal campaign poll they said showed Crist could be beaten. The Feldman Group survey of 800 Florida voters in late September found 47 percent behind the governor and 31 percent for Meek. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
"The fact that the governor is below 50 percent — before people have even had a chance to learn who congressman Meek is — is extremely encouraging," said Meek's recently hired campaign manager, Abe Dyk.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.