MIAMI — President Barack Obama swooped into Florida for less than three hours Wednesday to pick up $700,000 for the Florida Democratic Party and two corned beef sandwiches on rye from a Miami Beach deli — to go.
Obama's unannounced stop at Jerry's Famous Deli brought crowds streaming onto Collins Avenue and allowed him to give an extra backslap to Democratic Senate candidate Kendrick Meek, who joined him at the deli counter.
Obama cheerfully posed for a picture with deli employees, just minutes after leaving a Fontainebleau hotel reception where a photo with him cost donors $10,000 apiece.
For Alex Sink, the Democratic front-runner for governor, the potential price for embracing the increasingly unpopular president was too steep. The state's chief financial officer did not join Obama at the deli or greet him at Miami International Airport, and she had stepped off the stage by the time Sen. Bill Nelson introduced the president at the hotel.
Her distance from Obama contrasted with their dual billing as "special guests" for the fundraiser, which fortified the Democratic Party for a turbulent election year in which five powerful statewide posts are up for grabs.
"Alex knows what it takes to change business as usual in Tallahassee," Obama told about 650 people in the hotel ballroom. "She's not afraid to take on the status quo."
Obama's visit to Florida comes on the tail end of a three-day, five-state fundraising spree for Democratic candidates. Florida is among the most competitive of 37 states with gubernatorial contests in November, not to mention being a state crucial to the president's re-election in 2012.
"The power, the energy that is generated in this room can help us make the difference in this year and in the year 2012," Nelson told the crowd.
Sink thanked Obama for coming to Florida and vacationing this past weekend on the Gulf Coast, which is grappling with economic uncertainty after the oil spill.
A recent Mason-Dixon poll of Florida voters found Obama's job approval rating dropping "significantly" to 41 percent. The survey also showed widespread skepticism toward his economic recovery package.
"Florida, we're not there yet," he told the hotel crowd. "It took us close to a decade to dig ourselves into this hole; it's going to take some time to dig ourselves out."
"Eight years!" someone called out, suggesting Obama deserved a second term.
Obama portrayed Republicans in Washington as petty obstructionists.
"Remember our campaign slogan, 'Yes we can?' " he asked. "This year, their campaign slogan is 'No we can't.' It's pretty inspiring, huh?"
He added later: "If we give them the keys back, they will drive this economy right back into a ditch, and riding shotgun with them will be every special interest under the sun."
Sink spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said she could not meet Obama on the airport tarmac because of "previously scheduled events." Sink headlined a "power lunch" in Fort Lauderdale with other female officeholders and campaigned at the voter-rich Kings Point retirement community in Tamarac.
Her distance from Obama was not surprising, considering that Gov. Charlie Crist's embrace of the president last year helped his rival Marco Rubio torpedo his standing with GOP voters. Crist campaigned together with Obama for approval of the president's $787 billion stimulus plan.
Polls show Sink looking competitive against the winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary, which pits Attorney General Bill McCollum against Naples corporate executive Rick Scott.
Sink previously stepped away from Obama over the weekend, when she said she personally opposed the construction of an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The president has defended the religious rights of Muslims to build the mosque amid mounting criticism that it would be insensitive to the victims' families.
But no matter how much Sink tries to moderate her image, the Republican Party is expected to chain her to the Democratic administration, especially if its poll ratings and the economy don't improve.
"Alex Sink, who doesn't even mention her ties to the Democrat Party in her new campaign commercial, is now standing by President Obama and his left-wing ideology as she raises funds for her gubernatorial campaign from this visit," said Ronnie Whitaker, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.
Sink was part of a long lineup of Democratic candidates at the fundraiser, including Joe Garcia for Congress, Scott Maddox for agriculture commissioner, and Meek for the Senate.
Unlike Sink, Meek is involved in a competitive primary fight that will be decided on Tuesday by Democratic voters, making face time with the president a plus. Obama praised Meek as "a champion of middle-class families and someone who has not been afraid to stand up to … special interests."
Absent from the fundraiser: Meek's chief Democratic rival, Jeff Greene, who campaigned Wednesday in Orlando and Jacksonville. Greene, who once ran for Congress as a Republican, has been largely shunned by the Democratic establishment.