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Voters in Florida and everywhere are fed up with the status quo

In Kentucky, tea party favorite Rand Paul blew away the candidate anointed by the party establishment in the Republican Senate primary.

In Pennsylvania, voters tossed aside 30-year incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter in favor of an upstart Democrat who cast Specter as a party-switcher more concerned with keeping office than helping Pennsylvanians.

Nobody in Florida should be surprised by Tuesday's results after watching long-shot Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio roar past Charlie Crist, who had been coronated by the GOP establishment; Crist was trailing so badly in the polls he dropped out of the primary.

Grass-roots enthusiasm easily trumps establishment support this year, when voters of all persuasions are fed up with the status quo.

So if you're an outsider Florida candidate like Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott or Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Greene, Tuesday's bellwether results should give you reason to smile. If you're a career politician like Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek or Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, you ought to be anxious.

It's no accident that three very different candidates — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, Republican Scott and Democrat Greene — have virtually identical central messages: They're political newcomers determined to shake up politics as usual.

"Last night's results are proof positive of how frustrated and fed up voters are with politics as usual and the career politicians who have failed us," Greene said Wednesday.

Scott said that the elections were a wake-up call to career politicians and that Florida is mired in problems because of "the same old politicians and the same old political games."

Longtime banker Sink happens to be an incumbent but is working to finesse that: "These people get to places like Washington and Tallahassee — that's what I've seen in the three short years I've been there — those people in Tallahassee are out of touch, out of control," she told a Tampa Bay radio host Wednesday.

If you're Gov. Crist, the Republican-turned-independent Senate candidate, you probably feel pretty good that you're now the guy bucking the political establishment rather than embracing it. Crist abandoned the Republican Party to save his candidacy, but that didn't work out so well for Specter.

As an 80-year-old politician, Specter had plenty working against him this year. By many accounts, though, the turning point came when Democrat primary rival Joe Sestak — down 20 points in late March — started airing TV ads showing Specter with Sarah Palin and George W. Bush.

"Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job — his. Not yours,'' the announcer intoned.

The Rubio campaign has already jumped on video of Crist campaigning with Palin and Bush and could run a virtually identical spot.

"The question won't be can we find it, but which one is the best one to use,'' Rubio adviser Todd Harris said of the potential images available to knock down Crist's claims of nonpartisanship.

Campaigning in Miami on Wednesday, Crist dismissed the comparisons to Specter.

"I think people are tired of how Washington is failing to operate and listen to them," Crist said. "I think they're tired of party politics. They want somebody who represents the people first, not the party. We offer that alternative, obviously, here in Florida."

There is nothing fresh-faced about Attorney General McCollum, who spent two decades in Congress before running unsuccessfully for Senate twice and then successfully for attorney general. So he is touting experience, while blaming Sink for job cuts during bank mergers when she worked at NationsBank and attacking Scott's controversial tenure as CEO of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain.

"If we want to look at credentials, Rick Scott was ousted from his business because it perpetrated the largest Medicare fraud scheme in American history, and Alex Sink fired thousands of Floridians while taking millions in bonuses,'' said McCollum spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. "Do we really think that's who Florida will elect as their next governor?"

Miami congressman Meek, a former state legislator who succeeded his mother in the U.S. House, is hardly an outsider either. But in looking at Tuesday's results, he can at least take solace that grass-roots activism matters enormously in this volatile election cycle. Meek has already built a large field operation that helped him gather 145,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

There's a valid reason why serious challengers have emerged to take on anointed candidates like McCollum and Meek, and why Lawton Chiles III, the late governor's son, is preparing to challenge Sink. The front-runners so far don't look enough like change.

Voters everywhere are fed up. Any candidate looking like the status quo ought to worry.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com. Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

Voters in Florida and everywhere are fed up with the status quo 05/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 20, 2010 8:29am]
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