The renewed debate over whether Democrat Kendrick Meek should drop his bid for the U.S. Senate spilled over Friday into the governor's race as some questioned whether the controversy would hurt fellow Democrat Alex Sink.
Low voter turnout is already a real worry for Democrats this year. Turnout is expected to be key in the race for governor, which polls show is neck-and-neck between Sink and Republican Rick Scott.
A perception that Meek, who would be the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida, is being bullied by party leaders could further depress an important part of the Democratic base, some pollsters said.
"Anything that gives African-Americans reason to think it's not worth going to the polls, the big loser is Alex Sink," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
But others said the controversy could have the reverse effect.
Joy-Ann Reid, a Democratic activist from Broward County, said there were long lines Friday at early voting locations in South Florida's black neighborhoods.
"Ironically, this could end up helping her," Reid said. "If more folks are going to the polls because they feel Meek has been done wrong, those people are not voting for Rick Scott."
Black voters account for about 12 percent of the turnout at early voting locations, said Sink pollster David Beattie. That's several points higher than expected turnout and is counter to numbers that show Democrats trailing Republicans in early voting.
"African-American interest in this election is higher than white Democrats," Beattie said. "And it's almost as high as Republicans."
Sink had to scramble earlier this week to smooth over hard feelings among black voters upset after she skipped an NAACP-sponsored candidate forum. Scott's running mate, Jennifer Carroll, a black state lawmaker, attended the event.
Bishop Victor Curry, an influential Miami pastor, criticized Sink on his radio show, but forgave her when Sink joined him Tuesday on the program.
Sink on Friday reported a total of $11.3 million in fundraising for her campaign, nearly all in contributions of $500 or less. Scott, a wealthy Naples businessman, has spent more than $73 million on his race, according to reports made public late Friday.
The flap is the second in a week for Sink. Republicans accused her of cheating during a debate Monday when a makeup artist handed her a cell phone with a text message from the campaign staff. But video indicates Sink was handed the phone before she was told the message would violate the debate's "no notes" rule.
Sink said she is voting for Meek and called his ordeal a distraction. But she would not say if she was involved in any discussions to keep Meek in the Senate race.
"I didn't want to be involved," she said.
Friday, Sink campaigned in Miami, Meek's hometown. She visited with Cuban-American leaders at the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana and met with black leaders and community activists at a fried catfish lunch served at Jackson's Soul Food in Overtown, where she said she's not worried about a depressed African-American turnout.
"I am seeing lots of momentum, lots of enthusiasm," she said.
Scott said he had only a hazy notion of the Meek controversy and offered no opinion as to whether it might depress Democratic turnout.
"I have no idea. I think people should vote," Scott said after a rally in Fort Walton Beach.
Scott made several Panhandle stops Friday, including a rally of about 300 in Fort Walton Beach where he recited a litany of promises: creating jobs, improving schools, freezing regulations, reducing property taxes, phasing out corporate income taxes, cutting spending and passing lawsuit reforms.
In Destin, Scott told the Walton County Chamber of Commerce that public employees should pay a share of their retirement pensions.
"Let's do it now. Let's not make it a huge change down the road," Scott said.
Today, Scott will campaign in Orlando with former Gov. Jeb Bush, attend a tea party rally in Jacksonville, and make campaign stops in Winter Park and Hialeah before ending the day with a rally in Riverview with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Sink will start her day in Orlando, where she'll hold an early vote rally and attend a Florida Education Association event. Sink will also attend the Florida A&M homecoming football game in Tallahassee before ending the day at the NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner in Miami.
Times/Herald staff writers Lee Logan, Adam C. Smith, Lesley Clark and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.