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Cosmic opposites Alan Grayson and Dan Webster clash in U.S. House race

WINTER GARDEN — Daniel Webster hurried across the street, trying not to forget the lines fed to him with lunch. "I need to get this done," he said wearily.

He climbed into his old, white pickup and the TV commercial shoot resumed. Moving down a brick road in the quaint downtown here, the Ford F-150 with 177,000 miles was talking for both of them: trusted, durable, unpretentious.

As the script unrolled Saturday, another ad featuring Webster, 61, was being seen in homes across Central Florida, a political attack depicting him as a draft dodger.

It was the latest from U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, and at a union hall in Orlando that afternoon, Grayson was relishing its theatrical force.

The two approaches — Webster's Mayberry vs. Grayson's slash and hammer — cut to the core of the race for Florida's 8th Congressional District, one of the most watched in the country. Webster, a Republican, and Grayson, a Democrat, are cosmic opposites in both policy and personality, and their campaigns represent an intriguing test of the electoral mood.

Do uncertain times favor the family values conservative Webster, who served in the state Legislature for 28 years, or the blunt-talking, proudly partisan Grayson, a 52-year-old political newcomer who took the long-held Republican seat in 2008?

"I'm not going there to make a name for myself. I'm going there to accomplish something," Webster said, echoing his campaign's workhorse motif.

"I never believe that you should do this job anonymously," Grayson said. "People like a congressman with guts."

• • •

Grayson's antics have made him a national figure and cable TV regular. "Knuckle-dragging Neanderthals," he said of Republicans on CNN. He has denounced the GOP plan for health care as "die quickly," and dismissed a lobbyist as a "K Street whore." While other Democrats are shying from their votes on health care reform, Grayson wears his as a badge.

His outspokenness has made him a hero to liberals, flooding his campaign with $4 million from 50,000 donors across the country. "They've liberated me from having to kiss up to lobbyists and the filthy rich," Grayson said.

Webster is counting on a large donation influx since the primary but did not provide a figure Monday; he is also benefiting from conservative groups that have spent hundreds of thousands on ads blasting Grayson on health care, and the National Republican Congressional Committee plans to spend $817,000 on airtime against Grayson.

Against that, Grayson claims a commanding lead. He released a post-primary poll showing him up by 13 points over Webster, with a nonpartisan candidate and Florida TEA Party candidate drawing more than 20 percent of the vote. Webster's campaign would not release its polling but said the race is "very close."

The men are at an impasse over a debate. Grayson is pushing for all the candidates to be involved while Webster insists it be only him and Grayson. "It's not like Alan Grayson to duck a fight," read an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, calling it a "self-serving demand" because the TEA Party candidate could hurt Webster.

• • •

The perception of Grayson the bully is not hard to find in the district. But, surprisingly, by making himself a target for the GOP, he has won some over.

"He's courageous enough to really take a position," said Stephanie Paymayesh, 44, a registered Republican who is leaning toward Grayson. "You're getting from him what he really thinks, which is refreshing, sometimes offensive."

On Saturday, Grayson, a Harvard-educated lawyer, burst into a Communications Workers of America hall to wild applause from 50 supporters stuffing envelopes with his latest fundraising appeal. He wore a dark suit and black cowboy boots, a pant leg caught in one of them, at once formidable (he stands at 6 feet 4) and nerdy.

Zenobia Brown, 54, rushed over with a marker in her hand. On the back of her shirt, Grayson wrote, "justice, equality, peace," and signed his name.

As Grayson slipped into a back room to talk with reporters, volunteers crowded around a computer monitor to watch the trailer for a documentary being made about his campaign, Street Fighting Man: The Political Mind of Alan Grayson.

"They're all having a contest to see who can be the nuttiest nut," Grayson says in the film of the seven Republicans who lined up to challenge him.

• • •

Webster entered the race late, in April, launching his campaign at the Baptist church he attends. "Washington needs a revival of principle," he told the crowd. Name recognition gained by nearly three decades in the Legislature made him the instant Republican favorite.

In 1996, Webster became the first Republican House speaker in 100 years. As a senator in 2005, he led the fight to prolong the life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Pinellas County woman whose case set off an intense national discussion over end-of-life decisions. One of his final acts in 2008 was a failed, emotional push for a law requiring all women to undergo ultrasound exams before getting an abortion.

Even as he pursued a deeply conservative agenda, Webster drew respect from both sides. As House speaker, he resisted calls to smother Democratic ideas, as many Republicans felt happened to them when Democrats were in control.

"He is one of the most honorable individuals I know," said former Sen. Steve Geller, a South Florida Democrat who served as minority leader.

"I'm surprised he decided to run," said Geller. "I don't think he would be comfortable in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of Washington."

In fact, that is the underpinning of Webster's campaign — a statesman in a narcissistic, angry time. In other words, "I'm not Alan Grayson."

On Sunday, Webster overruled campaign advisers who wanted him to attend a rally in Orlando featuring Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who arrived in a bus emblazoned with the words, "Fire Pelosi," referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Instead, Webster campaigned privately at churches.

He says he is deeply worried about the growing size of the federal government and a climate that produces massive legislation, such as health care reform, that gets approved without everyone knowing the contents. He supports the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts (Grayson wants to eliminate those for the wealthy) and has cast the stimulus as a waste.

Webster runs an air-conditioning business out of a well-worn building in Winter Garden. Stepping inside is like visiting an earlier era with its wood paneling and dim lighting. There are the remnants of Webster's political career, a photo of him greeting Ronald Reagan and a sticker from his brief run for U.S. Senate in 2004.

Grayson, meantime, is trying to keep the focus on Webster's past, including his onetime support for so-called covenant marriage, which would have made it harder for people to divorce.

"Taliban Dan," Grayson calls his opponent. The draft-dodger attack only reinforced the hardball tactics eagerly embraced by Grayson, who was too young to be eligible for the draft. Webster said he had educational deferments and then failed a physical due to problems with his feet.

Standing outside Moon Cricket Grille in Winter Garden, Webster refused to say whether he would pursue the same social agenda he did as a state lawmaker, and he declined to characterize his opponent.

"He is who he is. I am who I am," Webster said. "One of us is going to win."

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.

Florida's 8th Congressional District

George W. Bush won easily in 2000 and 2004, but Barack Obama won by 2 percentage points in 2008. Today there are slightly more Democrats than Republicans but also many independents.

Cosmic opposites Alan Grayson and Dan Webster clash in U.S. House race 09/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 12:29am]

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