ST. PETERSBURG — Still trying to unify Democrats around his sluggish campaign, U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek got help Tuesday from one of his party's biggest stars, former President Bill Clinton.
Appearing with Meek on the campus of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Clinton made a case to more than 1,000 boisterous supporters that Democrats need more time in Washington to clean up the messes Republicans created.
Clinton stuck to a script of largely national issues — that Republicans want to repeal the federal health care law to do the bidding of health insurance companies and that they plan to walk back federal student loan reforms that give students access to cheaper loans.
He described Republican leaders as old college football coaches who were fired after posting a 2-9 record but now are complaining that Democrats haven't won a national championship in 21 months on the job.
So the Republicans who failed the first time want to be rehired to call the same plays, Clinton said, but "on steroids this time."
"We tested these ideas, theirs and ours," he said. "Ours worked better."
Clinton, who stumped Monday for Democratic Senate candidates in Washington and Colorado, said he didn't arrive in the Tampa Bay area until 4 a.m. Tuesday. It was his first public visit to the area since 1996, when he campaigned for re-election in Tampa.
Clinton was scheduled to head to Jacksonville later Tuesday before campaigning with Meek today at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink on Thursday in Miami.
His remarks, which stretched for more than 30 minutes, were quintessential Clinton. He effortlessly talked about how much he loved watching the USF Bulls football team while dazzling the audience by reciting obscure statistics on the economy, education and health care.
When a heckler tried to interrupt his speech by complaining about the war in Afghanistan, Clinton stopped him. "If you want to give a speech, why don't you wait until I'm finished," he said.
Clinton avoided discussing the complicated three-way race between Meek, Republican Marco Rubio and independent Gov. Charlie Crist. He didn't mention Crist at all and only in passing called Rubio "handsome." Instead, he attempted to cast Florida's Senate race as Democrats vs. Republicans.
But, of course, it's more complex than that.
Meek, a congressman from Miami, is stuck in third place in polls behind both Rubio and Crist, a former Republican who left the GOP in the middle of a difficult primary fight.
Rubio essentially has corralled the support of most Republicans, while Crist and Meek fight over Democratic voters. The dynamic makes it difficult for either Crist or Meek to win, without one or the other dropping out.
Meek has brought his party's biggest guns to Florida in recent weeks to aid his cause, including Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and current Vice President Joe Biden. But the outward effect so far has been minimal.
Nate Silver, a poll cruncher with the New York Times and FiveThirtyEight.com, gives Meek just a 0.6 percent chance of winning (Crist has a 6.7 percent chance, according to Silver), and Meek repeatedly has had to field questions about whether he should drop out and support Crist.
Meek and his supporters acknowledged he has yet to persuade enough Democrats to support his campaign.
"The only difference between Marco Rubio and my campaign is that 85 percent of Republicans are behind Rubio," Meek said in his opening remarks Tuesday.
A poll released this week by Suffolk University in Boston has Rubio with 39 percent support, Crist with 31 percent and Meek with 22 percent.
"Rubio's biggest ally in the U.S. Senate race is his Democratic opponent, who is preventing independent Crist from overtaking Rubio," said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk.
The head over heart argument — to vote for Crist thinking he could more easily defeat Rubio — was not lost on Meek supporters at Tuesday's rally. But it won't affect how they vote, they said.
"Charlie's a Republican, even though he says he's an independent," said Shelby Freeman, 66, of Largo. "I understand and appreciate that way of thinking, that Charlie can beat Marco and Kendrick can't, but I just can't bring myself to go that direction."
Added Samantha Ingram, 25 and a member of the Democratic Women's Club of Upper Pinellas: "I am a true Democrat. I know what Charlie's all about. And he's a Republican. I wouldn't vote for a Republican ever."
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2273.