The route for Republican candidates to the White House or the state house invariably leads through the Latin Builders Association in Miami, known for its politically influential members and free-flowing cocktail hours.
On Friday, a Democrat made a rare appearance in front of the predominantly Cuban-American, Republican crowd: Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. The speech by the Democratic front runner for governor in 2010, a former banking executive with long-standing ties to Miami's business community, tested her potential for attracting crossover support.
Several Republicans in the crowd said they were impressed, though the election is a long 16 months away and Sink's likely GOP rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, has not addressed the group since the race took off.
"She's transcended party lines, and I think that's why the group was open to what she had to say," said Bernie Navarro, a Republican investment banker who serves on the group's board of directors.
"She's a businesswoman, and she's in touch with what's going on," said Erbi Blanco True, another Republican banker. "McCollum needs to step up."
Sink talked about her upbringing on a North Carolina farm and the recent signs of a comeback in the housing market, avoiding potential points of contention with the audience of about 200 people. For example, Sink didn't mention her opposition to a new growth management law viewed as a shot in the arm to the real estate industry that environmentalists say will increase sprawl.
"Anything goes, and I don't think the people who live out in the Redland are going to be happy about that," Sink said in an interview before her speech, referring to the rural community in southern Miami-Dade. "That's why I've called the bill an ugly pig."
The builders' group has championed measures intended to lower property taxes, such as the constitutional amendment passed last year that increased the homestead exemption and allows homeowners to transfer tax savings to new homes. Sink didn't take a public position on the referendum at the time and said Friday she didn't recall how she voted.
"Everybody wants lower property taxes, but the people of Florida need to understand that at this point in our history, in our economy, if property taxes decline, that goes right to local governments and will mean further declines in education and services," she said.
Sink drew applause when she talked about a state program that recruited 1,000 lawyers to volunteer to help homeowners facing foreclosure. In what appeared to be a jab at Gov. Charlie Crist, she referred obliquely to politicians who talk about creating jobs but don't get results.
"I think we have to get rid of the status quo and not keep doing the same things over and over again," she said. "I think it's going to take a leader with nearly three decades of business experience to turn things around in Tallahassee."
Many people in the crowd clapped, but some said they didn't agree with her assessment of the GOP-dominated state government.
"It rubbed me the wrong way, so I'm not sure about her," said Republican Eric Concepcion, a vice president at U.S. Century Bank.
Sink mostly avoided partisan appeals, referring to the $8,000 tax credit for new homeowners from the "federal government'' instead of associating it with the Democratic administration. She sounded like a less-government, more freedom Republican at times.
"Some solutions don't require a government solution or taxpayer dollars or yet another new law to be passed," she said. "They just require a different kind of leadership."
Sink tried to charm the audience by joking about the "hourlong mojito party'' before the luncheon. She made fun of her of North Carolina accent, and described her delight when she first saw the downtown Miami skyline in 1984. Sink has diligently maintained some of the relationships she formed during five years in Miami overseeing consumer banking for the bank known then as NCNB.
"I have never lost my love of South Florida and my interest and appreciation for the diversity of this community," she said.