WASHINGTON — For nearly a year, Rep. Kendrick Meek has traversed Florida, persuading voters to sign a petition to get him on the ballot and, he says, in the history books.
On Monday, the Miami Democrat and his wife, Leslie, will sign his U.S. Senate campaign's last petitions and deliver them to the Miami-Dade elections office. Meek needs 112,476 to qualify for the U.S. Senate race, and his campaign says it will exceed that number, delivering more than 130,000 signed petitions.
"I thought it was very, very important that the people of the state of Florida place my name on the ballot to be the next U.S. senator," Meek, 43, said of his decision to seek signatures rather than pay the roughly $10,000 filing fee. "And I thought it was important for me to listen to the needs of Florida, from Escambia County to Monroe County. I knew it would make me a better candidate and a better senator."
Meek's campaign says he'll become the first statewide candidate to qualify for the ballot by petition, if the signatures are found valid. His campaign manager earlier this month told reporters that the campaign would pay the fee if there is a dispute over the validity of the signatures, though it does not expect to have to do so.
Besides historical bragging rights, the petition drive has given Meek free media — newspaper stories, radio and TV spots — at a time when the battle between his Republican rivals for the Senate seat is drawing national attention and overshadowing his quest.
A poll released Friday showed Meek can use the publicity: He's still unknown to more than half of the state's voters. The Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. survey says 52 percent of those polled were unfamiliar with Meek, though his numbers have improved since May 2009 when 67 percent of voters said they didn't know who he was.
According to federal campaign finance reports, Meek had about $3.4 million cash on hand as of Dec. 31, the most recent total available. Republican Marco Rubio had $2.1 million cash on hand and Gov. Charlie Crist had $7.6 million. The current fundraising quarter ends Wednesday.
He said his campaign spent much of the last fundraising quarter gathering signatures.
"We will post good numbers as far as I'm concerned because the petitions are a part of us winning," he said.
Meek says the drive shows "we have support all over the state," but he acknowledged there's a way to go.
"I wasn't known as well as I needed to be known, and we still have more work to do on that," Meek said, noting he spent a lot of his time north of Interstate 4 in Orlando, where he was virtually unknown.
The petition drive has also allowed him to meet thousands of voters and amass a database of more than 130,000 potential supporters.
"We will spring into a broader and more aggressive message with 112,476 petitions we're standing on," Meek said. "The last time I checked, when someone signed their name on a dotted line it meant something."
Some recent polls suggest Meek could benefit from the increasing rancor of the Republican primary between Crist and former House Speaker Rubio, as their negative ratings rise among voters. Meek said he hopes to attract moderate Republicans and independents as Rubio and Crist move further to the right.
"Every day that Gov. Crist and Speaker Rubio attack each other it turns off voters," Meek said. "It has very little to do with helping Florida get back on track."
Still, the Mason-Dixon poll suggests both Republicans hold comfortable leads over Meek.
"For Meek to be successful he really has to put the Obama coalition back together and that's going to be hard to do," said pollster Brad Coker, adding that President Barack Obama's own popularity has slid and that it will be difficult for Meek to hit the same rate of turnout among young and African-American voters.
"With all those factors and it not being a real good year for Democrats to pick up vacant seats, he's going to have a pretty uphill battle," Coker said.
Meek could benefit from a more high-profile primary challenge, Coker said. Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre is challenging Meek, but Coker said he's little known outside Miami.
Meek's Senate rivals last week turned their attention on him, criticizing his support for the health care overhaul. Both Republicans say they support scrapping the legislation, but Meek has embraced it. He shot pictures and Tweeted his trip to the White House to watch Obama sign the bill.
Still, Meek has sought at the same time to put some distance between himself and Obama, criticizing the administration's recent rebuke of Israel and its approach toward NASA.
"There will be issues that the president and I will work hand and hand on, 75 to 80 percent of the time. But there'll be issues we're not going to see eye to eye'' — especially where Florida is concerned, he said.
Meek's campaign suffered a potential setback in Tallahassee this week when the Republican-led state Senate — which had resisted earlier calls — agreed to ask voters in November to reconsider Meek's signature legislative achievement, a 2002 constitutional amendment that caps class size.
Coker suggested class size may not be the campaign asset that it might have been when Florida's economy was booming.
"We've gone from a rapidly growing state using portables to now everything is in a grinding halt," Coker said. "It changes the dynamic."
Meek, though, in a statement from his congressional office, vowed to "renew our fight to preserve this right our children deserve."