MIAMI BEACH — Seven years ago, Bill McBride stunned his wife, Alex Sink, by saying he wanted to challenge Jeb Bush for re-election.
"It was kind of, 'do you know what you're getting yourself into,' " recalled Sink, who wound up throwing herself into that campaign only to see her husband lose handily.
Now it's Sink running for governor, and the odds look considerably better for her than her husband in 2002: There's no bruising Democratic primary, no popular incumbent to unseat, a revitalized Democratic Party and a likely rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum, with a serious charisma deficit.
But, as Democrats gathered in Miami Beach this weekend to anoint Chief Financial Officer Sink as their newest superstar and best shot at winning Florida's most important office since Lawton Chiles, one had to wonder if Sink fully understands what she's getting herself into.
The hype will be hard to live up to.
"She's battle-tested," Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine told the St. Petersburg Times.
"You're going to see people in the business community who might have given to the Republicans in the past, this year helping Alex Sink because they know her as a businesswoman, they know her as CFO," veteran Democratic fundraiser Mitchell Berger said.
"Alex knows how to organize, put a team together, raise the money, put out a strong message," Florida Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman said.
So confident are so many Democrats about Sink's ability to win the governor's race, it's easy to forget that the vast majority of Floridians have little clue who Sink is. Citizens' letters to her office come addressed to "Mr. Sink."
Running for governor is far harder and higher profile than running for chief financial officer, and Republicans are gearing up to shred Bank of America's former top Florida officer as a liberal and phony who had a hand in wrecking the nation's economy.
"She did not have a campaign for CFO that really tested her," Republican strategist Rick Wilson said of Sink, who used to run Bank of America's Florida operations. "I don't think she has a lot of charisma, and I don't see her connecting with the broad spectrum of Floridians. She comes across as professional class, privileged, liberal elitist, and that's a hard sell."
Sink talks with a high-pitched North Carolina twang and is not known as an especially powerful speaker. But she gave the biggest speech of her political career to 1,100 Democrats gathered Saturday night in Miami Beach and had the crowd roaring. She talked of growing up on a family farm, of being a PTA mom and a businesswoman.
"It is no longer okay to keep doing things the same old way," she said. "Now more than any other time in our state's history we need a new and different kind of leadership."
Ideologically, Sink is hard to pigeonhole. She is a longtime donor to the liberal Emily's List organization that backs female candidates who support abortion rights, and she makes cutting government waste a central part of her campaign.
"I'm a Southern Democrat," Sink said in an interview. "You know what that means. Very conservative fiscally."
She dismissed the Republican attacks that as a longtime banking executive, she bears responsibility for the national economic crisis.
"I haven't been in banking for almost 10 years, and when I left banking, banking and bankers were different," Sink said. "The industry was different 10 years ago, and I didn't participate in the kinds of things that banking is being criticized for today."
So does she realize what she's in for as the campaign begins?
Yes, says Sink. "I have to put my trust in the voters of Florida."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.