Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater drives the state to get his CFO message out, 17 months before the election.

TALLAHASSEE — Community banker. Democratic giant killer. Fundraiser extraordinaire.

With a resume like that, it's little wonder that Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater hasn't yet drawn a Democratic opponent in the race for Florida chief financial officer.

"If anyone told you that Atwater had nothing to do with it, they'd be lying," said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist.

"Atwater is a tough, shrewd campaigner. He is disciplined. He has no trouble raising money. He has a good biography," Watson said. "But nobody is unbeatable."

Atwater knows it. The 51-year-old father of four is already crisscrossing the state in his family's blue Odyssey minivan — 17 months before the election.

"I have no doubt I'll wear out the odometer before this thing is through," Atwater said. "I'm putting in the miles."

Atwater, of North Palm Beach, is a fifth-generation Floridian, great-grandson of Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and great-nephew of Gov. Cary Hardee. In his first year as Senate president, Atwater won praise from Democrats for his affable, centrist style.

He avoids criticizing the current CFO, Democrat Alex Sink, who's running for governor. He said he wants to make the office the top steward of taxpayer dollars and a consumer-friendly protector of senior citizens, Medicaid patients and insurance customers.

"We need to be merciless, relentless in punishing fraud in our state," Atwater said. ''Anyone who preys on our people needs to be driven out of Florida."

If past campaigns are any indication, Atwater will raise the millions of dollars needed to drive that message home. With another year as Senate president still to go, Atwater is likely to have little trouble getting donors to open their wallets.

Rise to the top

Atwater won his Senate seat in 2002 in one of the most expensive legislative races of the time, after he had been a member of the Florida House for just two years. He beat one of the biggest names in the Democratic Party, Bob Butterworth, who had just left the attorney general's job due to term limits.

His rise continued in 2005, when fellow Republican senators ousted Senate president-designate Alex Villalobos of Miami in a coup that installed Atwater.

Last year, he shattered fundraising records when he ran for re-election, racking up more than $1 million in total contributions for his campaign and political committee accounts.

In his campaign, Atwater saturated the airwaves in Broward and Palm Beach counties with ads about standing up for families and fighting gang violence and insurance companies.

The ad blitz seemed like overkill against little-known, last-minute challenger Linda Byrd. But a newly emboldened Florida Democratic Party had begun attacking Atwater as a ''puppet'' of the insurance industry for taking campaign money from insurers and voting for legislation that raised rates for Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Atwater points out the rate increase never went into effect and other parts of the legislation benefited his district. Atwater, along with the rest of the Legislature, repealed the rate-hike language in 2007.

Vulnerability

Insurance could be a central issue in the 2010 race, especially now that the Legislature voted to allow Citizens' rates to rise again. In addition, the Senate successfully pushed a cigarette-tax increase to help fund Medicaid and fill a budget hole. The combination could offer Democrats an opening to point out that Atwater broke a pledge not to raise taxes.

"Atwater says one thing and does the opposite," Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said.

Democrats have at least one candidate for every other statewide office up for election in 2010 but haven't settled on a candidate for CFO. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo are considering the job.

Taddeo, a favorite of many party insiders, said she would run if her family agrees, and if she could raise enough money to take on a powerhouse like Atwater.

Though Atwater's former bank, Riverside National Bank of Florida, was dubbed one of the state's worst, Democrats could have trouble attacking him as a banker in an era of bank bailouts. After all, Sink was a banker.

Atwater said he wasn't an investment banker nor someone who sold "exotic financial products'' that endangered the nation's economy. "I was a community banker. And a community banker's role is to help small businesses and families," Atwater said. "Do I believe that, politically, someone might try to take advantage of my role as a banker and create a story line that's destructive of my credibility and candidacy? Certainly, I understand how politics works."

Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater drives the state to get his CFO message out, 17 months before the election. 06/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, June 7, 2009 9:16pm]

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