DAYTONA BEACH — Kendrick Meek likens his U. S. Senate primary to David against Goliath, but the Democratic underdog wields a weapon that covers more ground than a slingshot: a four-wheel motor coach with his smiling face plastered across the side.
On Wednesday Meek kicked off an 11-day, statewide bus tour aimed at picking up grass-roots momentum against the candidacy of billionaire real estate mogul Jeff Greene.
"The old-school kind of politics — when Bob Graham had his work days and Lawton Chiles walked this state — I think it still means something in this state," a fiery Meek told about 100 people at a Daytona Beach teachers union building.
"Democrats in Florida will give this nation the first example of what hard work means and what it means to run a grass-roots campaign against billionaires who have a shrimp in one hand and a checkbook in the other saying, 'How much does it cost to become a United States senator or governor in this state?,'?'' he said.
Meek, who has been campaigning harder and longer than any other statewide candidate this cycle, grasps the dire position he's in: Three weeks before the primary, he trails by double digits to a last-minute rival with a bottomless campaign account.
But sounding both upbeat and energized, the 43-year-old Miami congressman argued that the momentum is starting to turn back toward him, and that his deep roots among the most loyal Democrats across the state will compensate for Greene's nearly $10-million in TV ad spending.
Greene couldn't pull off a bus tour like his, Meek said. "Who's going to show up? Because his whole campaign is about campaign ads and not about real people."
Meek's campaign received a gift this week after Greene had to keep answering questions — and revising his explanation — about him taking his 145-foot yacht to Cuba in 2007, after a former deck hand told the St. Petersburg Times about guests partying and getting sick on the trip to Cuba.
First Greene said he hadn't been to Cuba in five years, then he said it was a Jewish humanitarian trip, and then he said he went because the yacht needed repairs.
On Tuesday, the Greene campaign released a statement from the yacht's chief engineer, Andy Valero, saying Greene and his fiancee were on the way to a diving vacation in Honduras when hydraulic problems prompted them to veer off to Havana to make repairs.
"With the current rough sea state and winds, Marina Hemingway was the best bet. All the guests were very sick," Valero said in the statement.
Visiting or doing business with Cuba can be illegal and Meek scoffed at Greene's explanation.
"Whichever way Jeff Greene packages his visit to Cuba, it was illegal,'' Meek told reporters, as the "Real Dem Express" motor coach left a facility in Sanford that turns wastewater sludge into energy.
Meek gave a blistering assessment of Greene, saying he could never endorse him in the general election because he lacks the character to serve in the Senate and would be an embarrassment to the Democratic Party and the state.
"He's a very, very — in my opinion — bad person and he has stomped on people and shouted people down his entire life, and all of that is going to come home to roost," Meek said, noting among other things, Greene's close friendship with convicted rapist Mike Tyson and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss.
The Greene campaign responded in a statement: "Kendrick Meek is not only already an embarrassment to Florida but should apologize for lying to Floridians in his ad using Mr. Warren Buffett's image and purposely misusing a quote for personal political gain."
It was a reference to a Meek ad criticizing Greene for making hundreds of millions of dollars on complex financial instruments that financier Buffett had criticized. But Buffett was not referring to anything Greene did personally, only to the type of investment involved.
While Greene only announced his candidacy in late April, Meek has been traveling to at least 50 Florida counties since January, 2009, and spent months gathering signatures in every corner of the state to qualify for the ballot by petition. In an off-year primary likely to have low turnout, that grass-roots effort and his own track record in Florida will make a difference, he predicts.
"I don't think there are many Florida voters saying, 'I need to make sure I get to the polls to vote for Jeff Greene.'?"Meek said.
Indeed, while Meek remains little known to most Floridians, he found plenty of enthusiastic supporters Wednesday in Orlando, Sanford, Daytona Beach and Jacksonville. They recounted him leading the fight to require smaller class sizes, sitting in Gov. Jeb Bush's office to protest sweeping changes to Florida' affirmative action admissions and purchasing policies, and supporting Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
"If Kendrick Meek is beaten by Jeff Greene in the primary, I will definitely vote for Charlie Crist in the general election, no question," said Gary Morgensen, an Osceola County teacher holding an "I support the real Democrat" placard.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.