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Florida Democrats revel in gained ground

DENVER — Four years after leaving office, former Sen. Bob Graham looked every bit the political star Monday, surrounded by beaming Florida fans and well-wishers.

But more striking was the action around him at the Florida delegation breakfast: U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston had her own throng of fans, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was fielding questions about another statewide run, and all over the hotel ballroom people speculated about Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink running for governor or U.S. Senate in two years.

"Democrats went through a period in which the bench got very shallow. Now I think we're rebuilding and in the process of developing a strong team for the future," said Graham.

Whether Barack Obama wins the Sunshine State in November or not, the Democratic Party in Florida is no longer on life support. It has gained ground in the Legislature, voter registration trends are going its way, and the massive voter mobilization organization Obama is building in Florida could well have repercussions beyond 2008.

What's more, Democrats no longer scratch their heads when asked to name plausible contenders for statewide office.

Which is why a lot of Florida politicians gathered in Denver for the national convention find themselves repeatedly button-holed by people asking their political intentions. Come January, the jockeying will get more intense.

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's 60 percent-plus approval numbers are intimidating, but Democrats note that the election isn't until 2010 and two years is a long time in politics.

"Think about the year George Bush Sr. had 90 percent approval rating and look what happened — Bill Clinton beat him," said Sink, who said she loves her current job but isn't ruling out running for U.S. Senate or governor.

"Isn't it nice to have choices," she said, when asked if Washington or Tallahassee would be more appealing. "I will assess the landscape after the first of the year, and make a decision then."

Sink is the Democrats' premier statewide candidate for 2010, and what she decides will dictate what other ambitious Democrats decide. It's a sign of Crist's political strength that many more Democrats appear to be eyeing Republican incumbent Sen. Mel Martinez's seat than the governor's office.

"The current governor is very popular. I don't see a Democratic challenger out there now, not unless the atmosphere changes," said former Education Commissioner Betty Castor.

One little-known figure to keep an eye on: U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, a Panhandle Democrat and influential leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. He has a lot of Democrats speculating about whether he stays in the House, runs for U.S. Senate or runs for the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services seat that opens up in 2010.

"I think Boyd holds a lot of cards," said Screven Watson, former executive director of the state Democratic party, noting that Boyd's moderate profile fits Florida and that his Washington contacts could give him an advantage in raising money for a federal race. "Sink and Boyd, I think, are the two strongest candidates for U.S. Senate."

State House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, one of the sharpest lawmakers and likely to win a state Senate seat in November, is another possible candidate for U.S. Senate, and others often mentioned include Dyer, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, and U.S. Reps. Ron Klein of Boca Raton and Tim Mahoney of Palm Beach Gardens.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is mentioned, too, but she said she wants to build seniority in the House.

"I want Alex Sink to run. I think we need Alex Sink in the Senate," Castor said.

State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has statewide ambitions but many Democrats see him as a more likely contender to try to unseat Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum.

"Who knows, is (U.S. Rep.) Robert Wexler going to be appointed ambassador to Israel if Obama wins? That's one of the rumors you hear, and that would open up a seat that I'm sure would interest Aronberg," said state Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale.

Former gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith of Gainesville has kept a low profile since losing the Democratic primary in 2006 but is often mentioned as a possible candidate for attorney general or agriculture commissioner. State Rep. Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee is also viewed as a strong contender for agriculture commissioner.

"I've been doing this 20 years, and Democrats when I started paid no attention to the farm team. You saw the results over the next 10 to 15 years, but that's really changing dramatically," said Boyd, who said he hasn't made any decisions. "All you have to do is look at some of the elections on the local level, the county commissions and legislative races, and can see the difference."

This presidential election will be telling for Florida Democrats, who for the first time have a presidential candidate pouring in resources and building a campaign structure comparable to the kind of organizations Republicans have had in place for at least six election cycles.

"It's not just the bigger bunch we have," said Gelber. "A big question is whether the political apparatus will mature sufficiently to compete in future election cycles."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Florida Democrats revel in gained ground 08/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 12:57pm]

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