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Oil disaster has reshaped Alex Sink's campaign

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has shaken up her campaign staff and taken on BP to do more to aid folks hurt by the spill.

KATHY KLASE | Times

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has shaken up her campaign staff and taken on BP to do more to aid folks hurt by the spill.

TALLAHASSEE — Never mind the voice coaches who worked to get Alex Sink to soften her southern twang, or the image makers who urged her to be more aggressive, or the handlers who lined up free TV time.

The state chief financial officer and a Democratic candidate for governor may have found her campaign voice in the gulf oil spill disaster that has consumed the coast of several states.

In the past two months, Sink has berated a BP executive whom she called to appear before the governor and Cabinet, criticized the Obama administration for failing to address troubles in the BP's claims process, and worked to position herself as the spokeswoman for small businesses crippled by the catastrophe.

"She's the only one that has stepped forward and taken the bull by the horns," said Tommy Holmes, owner of Outcast Bait & Tackle, a Pensacola company he built 23 years ago now facing bankruptcy.

BP offered to pay him $17,300 to cover his first $73,000 of lost revenue, but he rejected it. Now Sink, a former banking executive, has taken up his cause and considers Holmes the poster child for the failures of the claims process and the need for more disaster assistance.

She has assigned her consumer advocate to monitor how Holmes is treated by BP as he appeals the decision. She told Obama last week to take over the claims process and "send BP the bill," and told him he needs to tell bankers to negotiate more lenient terms for affected companies. And she has called on the state tax collectors to offer emergency exceptions for past-due tax payments.

Holmes, a Republican, now pledges to vote for Sink.

Sink is not the only statewide candidate to use the oil spotlight to bring attention to herself. Attorney General Bill McCollum, Sink's Republican rival for governor, and U.S. Senate candidate Gov. Charlie Crist, have also made repeated trips to the Panhandle to respond to problems and demonstrate their concern.

But Sink's newfound focus marks a pivot for her — away from a foundering campaign and a muddled message to an approach that attempts to highlight her business experience.

For months, her campaign was criticized for losing momentum as she cautiously avoided taking a position on health care reform and other issues until McCollum started raising more money and opened a lead in the polls.

Now, while neck and neck in polls with McCollum, she's trailing billionaire GOP upstart Rick Scott. But her supporters have stopped complaining.

"I absolutely can see her turning a corner," said state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, a leading Democrat who criticized Sink's slow start earlier this year.

Rich said she noticed the difference at a recent Broward County event where Sink hit the partisan high notes to get a roar from the crowd. "It was a tremendous difference,"

Rich added. "I think the oil spill has been a terrific example of her coming out really strong."

For months, Sink's campaign struggled to find a message as the candidate compounded problems with her risk-averse approach to contentious issues. The frustration from the ranks didn't manifest itself immediately, a testament to her keen ability to raise money. But as complaints mounted, Sink upended the campaign team and made changes, aides said.

In April, she ousted campaign manager Paul Dunn and recruited a number of veteran political operatives and consultants, such as Steve Schale, the political director of Barack Obama's Florida victory, and Emily's List strategist Shellie Levin, who is now Sink's deputy campaign manager.

At the end of the legislative session, Sink held a conference call with state House Democrats to reassure them that she would not repeat the mistakes of the two Democratic candidates for governor before her, one of whom was her husband, Bill McBride.

"I think she got out of the starting blocks slow, but I think she's beginning to hit her stride," said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat who was on the call.

Sink admits she "needed to make a change in leadership and bring in some more seasoned experienced people" to the campaign. But she reminds skeptics that she has solidified her party.

She faces a challenge from Bud Chiles, a lifelong Democrat and the son of former Gov. Lawton Chiles who is running with no party affiliation. Sink said she welcomes his challenge and believes her task is to bring together the party's base and the state's middle.

"Time and time again we see big falloffs of very energized voters who voted in the presidential campaign and then, two years later, stay home," she said. "I am certainly not going to ignore those core Democratic voters."

But she also knows "no Democrat can win with just Democratic voters" and hopes to appeal to independents with fiscal conservatism. She's also vows to be competitive with McCollum or Scott when it's time for her to launch the all-important television ads later in the summer.

Screven Watson, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with the campaign, notes that ''people forget she's only run once and it wasn't much of a race," he said. "As she's duked it out a little bit, she's gotten better; she's gotten confidence."

The challenge for Sink is to not let her business penchant as a strategic planner interfere with her need to make rapid-fire decisions on controversial issues over the course of the campaign.

"In politics, she has to shoot from the hip," Watson said. "It takes some guts and I think some of that they are still learning."

Meanwhile, Sink's focus on the failures of the system to respond to businesses has gotten attention. On the same day she sat at a picnic table with President Obama at a Pensacola pier, she earned television appearances in every major media market in the state and a beachside interview with MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan.

It's a comfortable place for the former Bank of America executive, who is more at ease discussing the impact of the disaster on a profit-and-loss statement than she is discussing politically charged issues. But her campaign staff has realized it's not going to change her either.

"She is who she is, and she has to be perceived for who she is," said Jim Cassady, Sink's former chief of staff and banking colleague who joined the campaign in January. ''It doesn't matter whether she has a southern twang or not, she's a problem solver."

Oil disaster has reshaped Alex Sink's campaign 06/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 3:48pm]
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