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Senate candidate Meek finds opportunity in Haiti's tragedy

A correspondent for CNN's Anderson Cooper was waiting for Kendrick Meek in the green room. Did the congressman have time for one more interview on aid to Haiti? Another television reporter nabbed him on Capitol Hill as he wrapped up an interview with BET.

The onslaught of attention on the Miami Democrat — who represents more Haitian-Americans than any other member of Congress — comes after months of scrapping for publicity, with his U.S. Senate bid eclipsed by the heated Republican primary between Gov. Charlie Crist and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Meek, capitalizing on his ties to Haiti and the national reach of his office, is seizing the moment. Leadership during Haiti's crisis could help him dampen skepticism about his strength in the 2010 general election.

"It's not anything that was in the plan," Meek said of the media blitz. "I'm just doing my job."

A year ago, Meek launched a workmanlike campaign that quickly cemented his status as the presumed Democratic nominee for Florida's open Senate seat. His only noteworthy rival, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, said last week that he has less than $60,000 in the bank. Meek had $2.7 million stashed as of Sept. 30.

"Obviously, we're running a very tight campaign," said Ferre, hoarse from a cold, sitting in the passenger seat as his wife drove him to an Orlando event. "My country needs people like myself with experience."

The two Democrats rarely treat each other as rivals. Instead, they have piled on Crist, who until recently was viewed as the surefire Republican nominee.

"He isn't prepared to lead this state in the United States Senate," Meek told the Tallahassee press corps this month. "One, he doesn't like to make a decision. Two, he's very vague. And three, I believe he's more politician than leader."

Ferre's attacks have focused on lawyer Scott Rothstein's close ties to Crist and the Republican Party of Florida. Rothstein is accused of running a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.

"I think the Rothstein issue is a clear indication of the unhealthy, and in my opinion, heartbreaking importance of money in politics," Ferre said. "Americans are really fed up with crooks and Ponzi schemes and the influence of money."

Rubio's surge in the polls is forcing the Democrats to expand their targets. The Democratic Party recently jumped on Rubio for pledging to repeal the health care legislation headed for passage in Congress.

"I can't show you my internal campaign plan that I wrote Oct. 1, but it included a large section on Rubio," said Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk. "We've long known there would be a bloodbath on the Republican side."

Rubio's hard-charging campaign against the more moderate Crist has made him the poster boy of the conservative movement. That means Meek, who has been little-known outside Miami, will have to catch up to the sitting governor or one of the nation's biggest political comers after the August 2010 primary.

"He'll in essence have a 90-day window of opportunity," said political consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who ran the failed 2004 Senate bid of another South Florida congressman, Peter Deutsch. "Because there is not a competitive contest, Meek's views and his plans will not get the same coverage."

But Haiti's crisis may be a game-changing moment.

Meek rushed last week from Larry King Live to the Tom Joyner Morning Show while fielding calls from anxious constituents and staying in touch with the White House and the Red Cross.

On Friday, after a "one-on-one" briefing with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, he called a news conference to trumpet his successful effort to win amnesty for some Haitians in the United States.

Since his election to Congress in 2002, Meek has traveled to Haiti more than 15 times.

"It's natural for folks to come to me for answers," Meek said, popping two aspirin before striding into a community meeting in Miami's Little Haiti packed with 250 people and lined with television cameras.

Haiti has temporarily sidelined his Senate campaign. A postcard-sized fundraising appeal for the Red Cross dominates his Web site. A fundraiser in Coral Springs, video shoot with his family and trip to Jacksonville to pick up a union endorsement were all canceled last week. Yet his profile is rising.

"Let's turn quickly to politics," said MSNBC's Joe Scarborough during his morning show after asking Meek about Haiti. "You're sitting back right now just watching the Republicans tear each other's eyes out."

Meek is quietly gunning to make history — first by qualifying for the 2010 ballot by collecting 112,476 signatures and then by winning election as Florida's first black senator. Most candidates pay a fee to get on the ballot, but Meek took the more populist approach to help build a grass-roots operation. He has the biggest staff of any candidate in the race (27) and the most offices (five).

At the Miami Gardens headquarters, a young volunteer sorts signature sheets into stacks by county, each identified with a yellow sticky note. Nearby, foot-high piles wait for staffers to enter the voters' names and contact information into a campaign database.

"I'm not sure there are too many pros to the campaign not being in the paper, but it does give us time to go out and build an operation and communicate directly with voters," said Dyk, who won't divulge the number of signatures gathered so far or Meek's latest fundraising total.

Ferre said he raised nearly $100,000 in the last three months and spent about $41,000, leaving a pittance for a campaign in a state as large as Florida. Ferre's campaign manager recently left to care for his ailing mother, and another name-brand political consultant is off the payroll.

The Democratic establishment has turned its back on Ferre.

"He didn't get the traction or momentum that he anticipated, and at some point in an upstart campaign you have to decide whether you are going to move forward. It appears that time has passed," said political consultant Jeff Garcia, who worked on Democrat Betty Castor's unsuccessful Senate bid in 2004.

"It will be impossible or very unlikely that people will want to make an investment in Maurice's campaign at this point without seeing any tangible results."

Former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns is also campaigning for the Democratic nomination, though he said he isn't raising money. "My plan is to get in front of people and see if my message is something they are accepting," he said.

Senate candidate Meek finds opportunity in Haiti's tragedy 01/17/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 18, 2010 7:58am]
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