The Democratic ticket in Florida turned to its party's most popular national figure, former President Bill Clinton, in a last-ditch effort Monday to rouse the faithful and offset Republicans swamping the early and absentee vote.
Democrat Alex Sink, who has battled Republican Rick Scott to an even draw in the governor's race, joined Clinton at an Orlando rally on the eve of Florida's turbulent midterm election.
Shortly before 11 p.m., Clinton, Sink and other Democrats stood before a crowd of about 1,000 cheering supporters. "I keep looking for this enthusiasm gap the Republicans keep talking about, and I can't find it to save my life," Clinton said.
Casting Sink as an "Obama liberal," a shirtsleeved Scott crisscrossed the state twice in a big blue campaign bus before doubling back to his hometown of Naples for a final sendoff.
In contrast to the mounting suspense over which party would capture the Governor's Mansion in the nation's largest battleground state, front-running U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio wrapped up his day early after stops in four cities. The Republican former state House speaker, whose success epitomizes the conservative grass roots surge across the country, is one of the hottest tickets on Election Night, with requests from 282 media outlets from around the world.
Two polls released Monday showed Sink ahead of Scott by a single percentage point. But Rubio posted double-digit leads over Gov. Charlie Crist, who touted his no-party affiliation in a seven-city fly-around, and Democrat Kendrick Meek, who ended a 24-hour campaign marathon at the Clinton rally.
The Quinnipiac University survey found Sink only narrowly more popular among women, even though she would be the state's first female governor. But roughly half of the voters have an unfavorable view of Scott, who has been savaged for leading a hospital chain that paid a $1.7 billion fine for Medicare fraud.
Scott, a first-time candidate, continued to rail against the status quo — never mentioning that his party has dominated Florida politics for the past 12 years. "We're going to change Tallahassee," Scott told supporters in West Palm Beach. "We're going to take it back for the benefit of the people."
The multimillionaire business executive has three things going for him: a campaign turbo-charged by $73 million of his own money, the popular Rubio at the top of the ticket, and an unpopular Democratic administration in Washington. Scott sounded eager to take advantage of Rubio's coattails.
"It's clearly helpful that Marco's in the race, so I'm sure that he's going to help me win," said Scott, who campaigned Monday with his running mate, state Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Jacksonville.
Sink traveled around the state with her own pick for lieutenant governor, former state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua County, and the two deans of the Democratic Party in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson and former Sen. Bob Graham. They personally called voters from the Lee County campaign headquarters, where Sink stressed that every text message, every e-mail, every voter driven to the polls would matter.
President Barack Obama hunkered down at the White House on Monday, calling radio stations in key states, including a South Florida hip-hop station. Black turnout could make the difference for Sink.
Last-minute attack ads are routine in a campaign's closing days because the targets have little or no time to respond. Overheard on Spanish-language radio during the morning rush hour Monday morning: an emotional appeal to Hispanic voters opposed to Arizona's new crackdown on illegal immigration, which Scott has promised to bring to Florida.
A police officer demands citizenship papers from a man pulled over for speeding. He doesn't have them handy, and the officer asks the man's young daughter for proof of citizenship, too. "But I was born here!" she wails.
In Florida's other marquee race, Gov. Charlie Crist continued his efforts to persuade Democrats that he's better a choice than their own party's nominee. Crist accused Rubio of steering state funding to Florida International University to land an unadvertised teaching job.
"I'm the only one who can defeat Marco. There's no doubt in my mind," Crist said in Meek's hometown of Miami.
Crist's closing argument tries to tar Rubio with the "right-wing" tea party movement, led by controversial Republicans like 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin of Alaska.
"This race is about the mainstream vs. extreme," said Crist, who campaigned with Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign but left the Republican Party six months ago.
Rubio is drawing a media frenzy to his election night party at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. It includes 75 members of the foreign press: radio reporters from the Czech Republic, West Africa, China, TV crews from the Congo, Colombia, Japan, and print reporters from Germany, New Zealand and Argentina.
But Rubio sought to downplay his status as a star leading a GOP wave into Tuesday's election. "This morning, I had to take out the trash because the truck was coming," he said in Hialeah. ''So nothing has changed at home."
Rubio drank Cuban coffee, posed for photos and said he would spend the rest of the day fielding radio and TV interviews. He recalled the three- and four-hour drives to sparsely attended events at the start of his then-underdog campaign.
He strode across the tarmac in Clearwater, careful not to claim victory but willing to cast the overall 2010 election as a success.
"We are 24 hours away from what I think is going to be one of the most important elections in modern American history," he said. "I think we have pretty much convinced voters that America is headed in the wrong direction."
Some in the crowd were confidently looking ahead to the next election. A dozen supporters unrolled a Rubio 2010 banner altered to say "President 2012."
Times/Herald staff writers Lesley Clark, Alex Leary, Patricia Mazzei and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.