Veteran political pros and Democratic activists across Florida increasingly fret that the woman once viewed as a sure winner for governor is proving to be a hypercautious candidate without a potent message or viable political operation.
Alex Sink is the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in two decades to raise more money than the leading Republican, and that matters enormously in a state as vast as Florida. But money and a lackluster Republican opponent are about the only things her campaign has going for it at the start of an election year shaping up to be tough for Democrats everywhere.
"There's certainly time to turn it around and get it on the right path," said Democratic consultant Jeff Garcia of Miami, "but the campaign appears to be behind the eight ball and a little bit slow in developing.''
Sink, 61, has had some rocky publicity over the past year, from questions about her oversight of the state pension funds to using state planes for campaign activity. She is a rookie politician still learning how to interact with voters and reporters alike, and some of her strongest supporters question her overall message.
Consider some of Chief Financial Officer Sink's recent announcements in a state where unemployment is in double digits, 40 percent of homeowners in South Florida owe more than their home is worth, and construction is down nearly 13 percent over last year:
• She persuaded the Capitol cafeteria to start serving 100 percent Florida orange juice.
• She scolded California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for saying Florida was known for "old people."
• She announced a moratorium on buying many office supplies after her staff counted 537 pounds of paper clips, 37,601 binder clips and 17,425 pens in their office.
"The campaign needs to focus on the major issues facing Florida, and it's not paper clips, it's not Arnold Schwarzenegger,'' said state Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, an enthusiastic Sink supporter. "Some of us are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt right now, understanding fundraising is very important and she's done that well. But it's important that the campaign make the leap to the next level."
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek is everywhere holding grass roots political events, while Sink's main Republican gubernatorial rival, Bill McCollum, regularly has "Breakfast with Bill" community meetings or rolls out grass roots campaign teams. Democrats say they see little pulse with the Sink campaign unless it involves soliciting campaign checks.
"As a grass roots organizer, it's difficult to make a case for a candidate who is unknown. I've never been contacted by the campaign,'' said Ann Zucker, president of the Weston Democratic Club in Broward County. "I am disenchanted with Alex Sink. She doesn't seem to like talking to the grass roots."
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On paper, Sink is an ideal candidate for Florida: a successful businesswoman with a North Carolina twang who used to run Bank of America's Florida operations. It both helps and hurts her candidacy that she is no seasoned politician.
In a turbulent election cycle where incumbents are vulnerable, Sink can position herself as a fresh face running against McCollum, the grim career politician and former lobbyist. At the same time, the art of politics does not come naturally to Sink, who can come off as more aloof than eager to mix it up with voters.
"Alex does not like to work a room, and for the faithful that want to touch her and feel her, she doesn't radiate that kind of warmth that they want. That's Alex — she's not warm and fuzzy,'' said former Democratic legislator Sam Bell, a strong Sink supporter. "She's got to get into the groove, but I'm not worried. I think it will fall into place."
Of additional concern, no statewide officeholder is more uncomfortable dealing with the Tallahassee press corps than Sink, who tends to cut off reporters even before her press handlers and has several times been caught on video curtly walking away from reporters pressing her for answers.
In a phone interview, Sink acknowledged her political learning curve but downplayed the significance of it.
"Unlike my opponent who's run for office 14 times, I've only run for office one time and it is a different experience from the world I came from,'' said Sink, adding that she's always working to improve. "I don't know anybody who likes a Web cam stuck 6 inches away from your face. . . . But that's the way it is. I just have to suck it up."
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It wouldn't be an election year without Florida Democrats publicly second-guessing and criticizing their candidates.
But the fact is there is no more important factor in a statewide Florida campaign than fundraising, and Sink has excelled at it — raising more than $5 million compared to $3.2 million by McCollum and $192,000 by Republican candidate state Sen. Paula Dockery. At the same time, she succeeded in fending off any potentially strong Democratic primary rivals.
"Lawton Chiles or Buddy MacKay or Bill McBride or Jim Davis would be very happy if they were doing as well as she is now,'' said Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser from Fort Lauderdale. "Message is the last part of the campaign. It's not the first because nobody's listening right now."
The plan all along was to focus on fundraising in 2009, Sink said. Now the campaign is hiring more staffers to expand its scope. She spoke to Hillsborough Democrats on Saturday and is scheduled to address Pinellas Democrats in two weeks, a sign she's stepping up her political activity.
She's also showing more spark. At last week's Cabinet meeting, she blasted the state's chief financial regulator for not suing Bank of America — her former company — over its controversial purchase of Merrill Lynch. When the McCollum campaign suggested her display was political she described the criticism succinctly: "A bunch of bull."
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Amid the growing chatter that Sink could prove to be the most overrated gubernatorial candidate since her husband, Bill McBride, ran in 2002, she and her senior advisers held a retreat recently to take stock.
"I took a businesslike approach: What are we doing well? What do we need to improve on? Where are our gaps? What are our talent gaps? And we're in the process of filling the gaps and building on the strengths that we have," she said.
Sink dismissed the suggestion that she needed to offer a clearer rationale for her candidacy or that she's too cautious.
"I'm running for governor to bring my business experience to focusing on rebuilding our state and to getting jobs for Floridians. I'm going to be waking up every day when I'm governor thinking about what am I doing that day to build a new economy for Florida and bring more sustainable types of jobs back to our state. And I'm going to hold the politicians in Tallahassee accountable for the money they spend, and I'm going to make our state government operate more efficiently and effectively,'' Sink said. "To me, that's a pretty clear message."
Not exactly bumper sticker material, but she has another nine months to fine tune it.
Miami Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]