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As Bill Clinton campaigns for Kendrick Meek, benefits may be mutual

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., introduces former President Bill Clinton as Clinton campaigns for his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 2008.

Associated Press

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., introduces former President Bill Clinton as Clinton campaigns for his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in 2008.

"On the scale of 1 to 10," U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek says of Bill Clinton's visit to Florida today, "this is an 11."

Locked in a tough Democratic primary with polls showing no obvious winner, Meek is hoping the former president will provide the kick he needs in the final week.

If anyone can deliver, it's Clinton, whose love among Democrats seems to be outmatched only by love from Democrats in South Florida, where the two will campaign together eight days before the primary.

"It will help bring about clarity," said Meek, who has been far outspent by billionaire rival Jeff Greene.

Clinton and Meek will stage rallies in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Demand was so high in Palm Beach that a larger venue had to be reserved, Meek's campaign said.

The TV coverage alone could be worth the equivalent of millions in campaign ads.

"This is pivotal for Kendrick," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar. "The locations are hotbeds for Democratic activists and it will generate a buzz that Kendrick should be able to ride into the 24th primary successfully."

Greene played down Clinton's role and has cast Meek as an ineffective congressman. "People in Florida are too smart to rely on another political figure endorsing someone," Greene said.

But in a Democratic primary where turnout could be low, the candidate who most energizes the base could win. Black voters account for a quarter of Democratic voters in Florida.

"There's nobody that can stimulate that African-American vote more than Bill Clinton," said Darryl Paulson, a retired political scientist from the University of South Florida. "You would think a black president could do that, but I think even the African-American community feels some disappointment with (President Barack) Obama."

The Clinton-Meek alliance began when Meek was a Florida state trooper providing security for a little-known visiting governor from Arkansas. But their story is also one of political alliances and circumstance — a situation that could help Clinton as it helps Meek.

Meek, a congressman from Miami, endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008, giving her an early foothold in the critical state and among the African-American community that was witnessing history in Obama.

Several other black lawmakers in Florida backed Hillary Clinton over Obama, a testament to the man once referred to as the nation's "first black president." But the former president lost favor in the community for comments on Obama's campaign during the primary battle, at one point implying it was a "fairy tale." Clinton said the words were distorted and came in the context of Obama's opposition to the Iraq war.

It was no dream. But the euphoria and high hopes that swept Obama into office have given way to the reality of high unemployment and divisive battles over health care overhaul and government spending. Obama's ratings are down and, as such, his ability to help candidates is significantly diminished.

Some have shied away from his involvement in their races, and Obama has told members of Congress he may do more good by staying away. Obama has been on an aggressive fundraising pace, including Wednesday in Miami at an event Meek and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink will attend, but the fundraisers are out of public view.

Bill Clinton, who turns 64 on Thursday, carries no such burden. When he stumped for state Democrats in 2006, he drew frenzied crowds. Some shed literal tears of joy. A Gallup poll last month found his favorability rating 9 points higher than Obama's.

The current president's overall approval rating among Florida voters is at 44 percent, down from 48 percent in May, according to an Ipsos Public Affairs poll conducted this month for the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9/Central Florida News 13.

So, as time would have it, Meek may have stuck by the right candidate.

"It's payback time," Paulson said.

Meek, 43, dismissed that notion. Noting that Clinton has held five fundraisers for him (raising $730,000), he said he "could have ducked out a long time ago." Clinton will help raise more money at backstage events before today's rallies.

Clinton could do well, too.

By visiting South Florida and appearing with a candidate who is trying to make history as the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South, he could help repair self-inflicted damage from the 2008 presidential primary.

In addition to offending blacks by calling Obama's bid a "fairy tale," he suggested that Obama could win the South Carolina primary, where half the voters were black, because of his race.

"For the first time in his career African-American leaders were severely criticizing him," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "To the extent he needs to be restored, this helps. But I think he's already restored. They don't call Bill Clinton the 'comeback kid' for nothing."

Meek said he thought Clinton's comments were misconstrued. "No one thinks President Clinton looks at color as an issue," he said.

He added: "Last I checked, President Clinton and President Obama have been working together to move America forward. I don't think there's anyone walking around saying he has to prove himself to the black community."

As Bill Clinton campaigns for Kendrick Meek, benefits may be mutual 08/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 3:47am]
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