TALLAHASSEE — Facing only token opposition in her primary, Democrat Alex Sink is expected to emerge victorious today, but with one big problem: In her quest to become governor, she is unknown to half of Florida's voters.
Meanwhile, a barrage of television ads in the high-profile Republican primary has given her competitors — Attorney General Bill McCollum and Naples businessman Rick Scott — plenty of name recognition. It also has given her plenty of ammunition to use against them in the November general election.
Sink is expected to have no difficulty today overcoming Hernando County activist Brian P. Moore to secure the Democratic nomination. Her challenge, then, will be to define herself as a candidate, and explain to voters what she wants to do in office, pollsters and political observers say.
"When you're not known, nobody knows what you're for or against," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The Quinnipiac Poll last week found that 53 percent of likely voters in the state haven't heard enough to form an opinion about Sink, including 44 percent of all Democrats. A recent Mason-Dixon poll found that one in three voters didn't know much about her, either. And an internal Democratic poll showed that 47 percent of voters don't know enough to rate her.
Even some of her supporters bemoan the fact that Sink, who has run for public office only once before, is still a mystery.
"I'm fighting an uphill battle," said Millie Spaner, a retired Duval County schoolteacher. "Most of my neighbors don't even know she's a woman."
Once people figure out she's a woman, pollsters say, Sink faces another problem: Voters conventionally stereotype women Democrats as liberal. To win moderates and independents in the general election, Sink has to change that perception.
Her supporters say that will be easy. "Her record debunks that," said Kyra Jennings, Sink's campaign spokeswoman. "Once voters hear about her detailed business plan and her business leadership, it will reinforce in voters' minds that she's a moderate."
Sink spent 26 years as an executive at Bank of America, NationsBank and before that at NCNB, and has spent the last 3½ years as the state's chief financial officer.
But the Republican Party of Florida considers much of that a liability and is primed for attack. The party is prepared to not only define Sink as a liberal and slam her as a banker, but also tie her to President Barack Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the federal stimulus plan and the president's health care reform. They're also going to highlight her role as a generous contributor for many years to Democratic causes.
"She has been trying to portray herself as a moderate businesswoman, not bound by special interests and Washington politics," said Katie Gordon Betta, spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida. "But, for the last several decades, she's contributed thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to very liberal insiders."
Apparently sensitive to appearing too close to the president, Sink avoided appearing on stage last week when Obama was in Miami for a fundraiser.
Betta said Republicans will capitalize on the fact that Sink is "not well defined and doesn't have a lot of statewide recognition, despite the fact that she's been in office for four years."
Sink is trying to change that. A week ago, she launched an $853,000 television ad campaign in six state media markets to run through Election Day. It features Sink telling voters that she's prepared to tackle the state's problems while actors, playing her two Republican rivals, bicker in the background like children.
A day later, Sink named her running mate, conservative Democrat and former Gainesville state Sen. Rod Smith.
And throughout the week, Sink conducted campaign events and fundraisers, drawing small crowds in major media markets.
Sink says her campaign will have the resources to surmount the identity gap with television — in due time.
"By the time we get to Nov. 2, all the voters are going to know exactly who Alex Sink is and what she stands for," Sink said. "They're going to be able to see me in the flesh. They're going to hear my voice, and they're going to have the ability to hear my plan for the future."
Dave Beattie of Hamilton Campaigns, Sink's pollster, said few voters knew who Sink was four years ago when she trailed in the polls against her Republican rival, former state Sen. Tom Lee. By Election Day, she overcame the unknowns and defeated Lee.
"Florida has more voters than all six Northeastern states," Beattie said. "There's no way to meet that many people without being on television."
Scott has proved the power of TV in Florida, Beattie said. An unknown in April, he and his wife poured $50 million of their personal fortune into the campaign over 16 weeks and Scott became a virtual household name.
McCollum countered with a $13 million ad war to attack him, and the result is that both are bruised, but known.
Brad Coker, director of the independent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, said that despite her low name recognition, Sink has two things going for her: She is the beneficiary of the Republican in-fighting (polls show her leading against either Scott or McCollum in a head-to-head matchup), and once people learn she's a woman, she could have an advantage.
"There's a general theory that voters are angry at government — the wheeling and dealing and career politicians — and women are generally being seen as more honest, having more integrity, and being more trustworthy," he said. "Being a woman is going to be an advantage for her. How much an advantage, I don't know."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.