Republican Dan Raulerson isn't taking chances in the state House District 58 race, even though his opponent lost the backing of Hillsborough County Democrats and hasn't raised any campaign funds beyond a single $100 donation.
Raulerson's opponent, Democrat Jose Vazquez, vowed to suspend his campaign two weeks ago after a dispute with party leaders. His name is still on the ballot, though.
Even Plant City Mayor Michael Sparkman couldn't help but marvel at Raulerson's apparent lopsided advantage: "He's never had an opponent. I wonder what it's like to not have an opponent?" the mayor said this week.
So given Raulerson's leg up does he really need to rally 10 campaign volunteers every Saturday morning to go door to door, glad-handing voters and dropping off literature? That has been his routine since May.
And why spend upward of $5,000 to $15,000 to produce a TV political ad and another $10,000 to broadcast it on Fox, CNN, MSNBC and Bay News 9? The first of two such ads is set to run this weekend in eastern Hillsborough.
At this point, couldn't he just cruise toward November?
"I mean he's running against a guy that doesn't even have the support of his own party and served time in prison," remarked Michael Gibbons, associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida.
The race might seem a foregone conclusion, but there's good reason to keep pushing ahead, political experts and Raulerson's campaign advisers say. They cite three main reasons:
First, he's running in a redrawn political district that tilts Democratic: District 58's electorate runs 40 percent Democrat to 36 percent Republican. The remaining 24 percent are independents, which means Raulerson needs to win over more independents than his opponent.
Second, he's not well-known outside Plant City, where he served five years on the Plant City Commission, including two years as mayor.
And third, conventional wisdom suggests that candidates campaign hard to Election Day to avoid getting hurt by last-minute stunts and ad blitzes.
"There are always variables that you can't know about at the front end," lobbyist and campaign strategist Matthew Blair of Capitol Consulting said. "On election night, you want to know that you have done everything possible to convey your message, regardless of whatever your opponent is doing or not doing."
In some respects Vazquez, 38, a security specialist, seems like the ultimate political wildcard.
He stepped into the spotlight four years ago when he launched a political campaign from behind bars. He was serving time on a felony conviction when he filed to run as a write-in candidate for the state House.
Then, three weeks ago, he made headlines after feuding with Hillsborough Democrats when the party withdrew its support for him. Vazquez vowed to quit the race, then changed his mind saying he'd stop campaigning but keep his name on the ballot.
Vazquez's campaign is broke. Worse than that, it's in debt.
State records show that most of the $2,205 he received since May came from personal loans. He accepted one donation: a $100 check from Tampa real estate agent Ignatius DeMio. Meanwhile, he has spent more than $6,000 as of Oct. 12.
Raulerson, 55, an accountant, has raised more than $157,000 and spent about $94,500, records show.
With 11 days until the election, he's still spending.
This weekend will see the first of two TV ads in District 58. Neither one attacks his opponent but lays out Raulerson's conservative philosophy.
The ads are a smart move, says Gibbons.
"One of the things advertisers know is that if you can repeat the brand name time and time again it sticks with people," he said. "Sometimes you see the same ad one after another. That's not a mistake. Advertisers know if you can repeat the message it can become imprinted in your memory."
Raulerson will purchase time for 300 30-second spots on Bay News 9, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
He won't reveal how much he paid, but local experts say political ads typically range $15,000 to $25,000, including production costs. That's to show the ads 300 times on the major cable news channels.
"In broadcast TV, those costs are higher because you're covering the whole market," said Debbie Torres, general sales manager at Viamedia Television, which sells advertising for Verizon FiOS and cable provider Knology Inc. "With cable, you can direct your message to a specific audience."
Raulerson and his team offered a simple explanation for the ads: He's not well-known outside Plant City.
He figures that since May he has hit 7,000 homes going door-to-door, from Temple Terrace to the Polk County line and north of State Road 60 to the Pasco line.
"Ninety percent of the time when you go door-to-door, they don't know you," he said. "That's true with almost any candidate. That's why it's important to get out and meet voters one-on-one, to make an impression."
Even in Plant City, his home turf, the former mayor found that most folks simply don't keep up with local issues and don't know the candidates until they show up on their doorstep. TV will offer him a chance to reach a bigger audience in a shorter time.
He'll find out next week if they're making an impression. He plans to do more door-to-door canvassing next weekend and might also hit a few neighborhoods after work. He figures he has lost 20 pounds from all the campaigning.
"You can't take anything for granted," Blair said. "In the end, you want to know that you did everything you could."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.