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Kendrick Meek scrambles to solidify backing in Senate race

Up early Sunday for a 12-hour campaign marathon through South Florida, Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek said he saw three commercials for his deep-pocketed rival before he could even get out the door.

It's been that kind of hard-knocks campaign for Meek, who got into the race 18 months ago, before any other major candidate.

Who would have expected what happened next?

Marco Rubio became a Republican phenomenon, Gov. Charlie Crist reinvented himself as an independent, and a little-known Palm Beach billionaire named Jeff Greene became a Democratic contender.

A shoe-leather campaign that collected 125,000 voter signatures hasn't taken Meek farther than a distant third place in the polls, behind Crist and Rubio, and with Greene closing in.

So five weeks before the primary, the Miami congressman finds himself shoring up support in his own back yard. His seven stops on Sunday included a gospel music-infused church in Lauderdale Lakes, a Miami union hall, and heavily Democratic condominiums in Aventura, Sunrise and Deerfield Beach.

"All of a sudden, Kendrick had to pivot and ask for the support of people he thought he could have counted on," said Democratic fundraiser and developer Stephen Bittel, who came to Meek's appearance in Aventura to show his support.

Greene makes no apologies for his short-time record as a registered Democrat and full-time resident of Florida since 2008. He blew off chances to meet with gay, Hispanic, Haitian and student activists at Saturday's state party gathering in Hollywood and decided to drop by the black caucus at the last minute.

"We pick and choose certain caucuses," Greene said, adding that Democrats are ''welcoming me into the tent."

Even if they don't, Greene is undeterred. Only Meek was invited to address Friday's annual gathering of Democratic senators and donors in Nantucket, Mass., but Greene came anyway, as a donor. He brought his 145-foot yacht and sat in the front when it was Meek's turn to speak.

Greene did get a slot at Saturday's state party dinner and received applause when he said he would support whoever wins the Democratic nomination. Meek, who is typically known to give rambling speeches, gave a fiery address that brought some Democrats to their feet.

"You were sensational last night. That's the way we want you to talk all the time," former state Rep. Elaine Bloom of Miami Beach told Meek at the Aventura event. "Give 'em fire."

Meek and Greene refrained from attacking each other by name in front of the party faithful Saturday. But Meek didn't hold back in a harsh new mailing to voters, which says, "It's hard to be the worst of Wall Street, but Jeff Greene found a way."

Greene made hundreds of millions of dollars though an obscure investment called credit default swaps, which amounted to bets on widespread mortgage foreclosures. Greene has said he was protecting his real estate investments.

"Less than 24 hours after Democrats united at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Kendrick Meek resorted to vicious personal attacks against Jeff Greene to cover up for his own failed leadership," the Greene campaign said Sunday in response.

Since he got into the race shortly before the April 30 deadline, Greene has spent nearly $6 million of his own money. He has said he will spend whatever it takes to win.

"He feels he's qualified to be a senator because his checkbook is bigger," Meek said in Aventura.

But to some voters, Greene's business background is a strong selling point. He and Meek agree on most of the Democratic Party's agenda — supporting health care and Wall Street reform, opposing offshore oil drilling and limits on abortion — so their differences lie primarily in personality and experience.

The centerpiece of Greene's campaign in an election year that frowns on incumbency: He's not a politician.

But Crist may pose an even bigger threat to Meek. Hollywood activist Michael Gold said he'll back Meek in the primary, but he's still unsure whether he will vote for him over Crist in the Nov. 2 general election.

Meek's challenge is that in the nation's fourth-largest state, television rules. He has about $4 million in the bank, which would cover only about three weeks of solid, statewide advertising.

"I want to see myself on television too, believe me, and we're going to get there," he said Sunday. "I really want Aug. 24 to hurry up and get here so we can move on."

Kendrick Meek scrambles to solidify backing in Senate race 07/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 19, 2010 12:05am]
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