PINELLAS PARK — Former congressman Alan Grayson led off with a calm voice and a request for a prayer.
A change of heart by the liberal Democrat with a national reputation for caustic remarks? No chance.
"Dear Lord, thank God I'm a Democrat. And thank God I did not have to vote in the Republican presidential primary," he told Pinellas County Democrats on Saturday night.
"They're all a bunch of losers," he said of the GOP hopefuls.
Grayson, from the Orlando area, is running to return to Congress after being defeated in 2010. His speech came as Pinellas Democrats themselves try to rebuild and re-energize. His theme: what it means to be a Democrat.
He told the crowd of 400 at the party's annual Kennedy-King Dinner that Democrats try to help people struggling for jobs, food and mortgage payments.
"We don't always succeed, but at least we're pushing in that direction," he said. "Think to yourself, what is the Republican plan to end hunger in America? Go on a diet."
Although party leaders exuded enthusiasm, local Democrats face a struggle in 2012 to overcome years of Republican dominance in Pinellas politics.
President Barack Obama won Pinellas in 2008, and Democrats gained the lead in county voter registration. But local Democratic candidates didn't see much advantage. And in 2010, Republicans rode the tea party wave to knock out Democratic incumbents on the County Commission and in the Florida House.
From 2009 to the end of 2011, Pinellas Republicans raised $606,000, while Democrats have raised $140,000.
"We have a lot of ground to make up in this state, a lot of ground," Grayson said, noting shortfalls in Democrats who use mail ballots.
But Mark Hanisee, chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Party, said 2012 is different because the local party has good leadership and Obama is running as an incumbent, not a challenger.
"The difference I see is there's more focus and more coordination here," said Hanisee, who helped lead the county party's fundraising in 2008.
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTimes.