Squeezed between a newly independent Gov. Charlie Crist and an aggressive new Democratic rival in the U.S. Senate race, Kendrick Meek faces unexpected and formidable foes in the fight for Florida's biggest pot of Democratic voters: Broward County.
With its 544,000 registered Democrats, Broward looms as a battleground and one of the Miami congressman's biggest challenges as he tries to move out of third place behind Crist and Republican Marco Rubio.
Sprawling retirement condominiums, where voters like to size up candidates running for sheriff, the governor's mansion and the White House over marble cake and coffee, represent political ground zero in Broward.
Meek's new Democratic opponent, real estate investor Jeff Greene, already beat him to the punch by securing a speaking spot Wednesday at the voter-rich Kings Point development in Tamarac. Greene barely registers in the polls but launched a ''substantial'' statewide television campaign on Tuesday.
Meantime, the gladhanding governor is already well known in Broward. Asked last week how Crist thought he'd fare with the condo crowd, the longtime St. Petersburg renter quipped: "I live in a condo!''
Political activists like to joke that Broward Democrats are so partisan that they wouldn't vote for a Republican for dog catcher. But now that Crist no longer has an "R'' next to his name, some Democrats say they are considering the familiar and politically moderate governor over Meek, the likely Democratic nominee.
"I never met Rep. Meek until I went to Washington last month to lobby on behalf of Broward County," said Mayor Ken Keechl, one of a handful of prominent Broward Democrats who have yet to endorse Meek. "There are a number of Democrats who have said to me, 'I don't know this guy, and I think Charlie can be considered a Democrat.' "
Some political activists charge that Meek hasn't paid enough attention to Broward.
"Mr. Meek has sought not to come looking for us, that is his problem not mine," said Marc Sultanof, Democratic club president at the Kings Point development in Tamarac, the high-turnout precinct to which national Democrats like Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have paid their respects.
But other Democratic activists and Meek's campaign dismiss such talk.
Deerfield Beach Century Village Club President Bernie Parness noted that he and other activists met with Meek at a diner a few months ago.
"Give the man a break — it's a big state." he said. "He's got to show his face where they don't know him at all, that's first, and then he'll be in Broward."
Meek has been crisscrossing the state at a furious pace — this past weekend alone he had plans to be in Miami, Palm Beach County, Tampa, Plant City, St. Augustine, Panama City and Pensacola.
"Our focus has been on traveling — getting to all corners of the state where he's had to introduce himself or reintroduce himself," said Meek spokesman Adam Sharon. "We are working on getting to these [Broward] communities very soon, absolutely."
Among the Broward spots he has visited: Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Century Village in Pembroke Pines, a park in Coconut Creek and the Jewish Community Center in Davie. Many events didn't attract much media attention while the focus was on the fierce rivalry between Crist and Rubio.
"People would like to see him more often, but it's a statewide campaign and we need to share him with the rest of the state," said Barbara Effman, president of the West Broward Democratic Club, who said Meek spent three hours at her house visiting with other club presidents.
For Meek, the sudden emergence of Broward as a battleground began last month when Crist ditched the GOP and announced he would run as an independent. The entrance of Greene, a billionaire from Palm Beach County, added to the changing dynamics of the race.
Last weekend, Greene attacked Meek for seeking federal funds for a developer who helped his chief of staff buy a house and paid his mother as a consultant. Meek has said he didn't know about those relationships.
For Democrats running statewide, the challenge is to secure a big enough margin of victory in Broward to help offset losses in more conservative parts of the state.
History shows that margins matter: A 123,000-vote margin in Broward helped Democrat Lawton Chiles defeat Jeb Bush to take the governor's mansion in 1994. Four years later, Buddy MacKay's margin in Broward was just shy of 100,000, and Bush won.
Republicans rarely win Broward countywide. Sheriff Al Lamberti pulled it off in 2008 despite heavy Democratic turnout to elect President Barack Obama.
For his part, Crist is drawing interest among Democratic voters. Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, a college professor from Plantation, said the governor might win her over if as expected, he vetoes a bill that would require women seeking abortions to view an ultrasound. Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, one of the county's longest serving Democrats, also said a veto of the abortion bill could push her to Crist.
"Kendrick Meek I'm not really aware of," said Lynch-Walsh, one of about 240,000 Broward voters who aren't affiliated with either major party. "I am definitely not voting for the Republican candidate. I just don't know the Democrats from anybody. He is just kind of, he's barely there."
Times/Herald staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.