Four of the five top contenders for the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination spoke to voters in Tampa Bay on Friday. Two stood out: Andrew Gillum, the 37-year-old, largely unknown mayor of Tallahassee, and John Morgan, the 61-year-old, widely known personal injury lawyer from the Orlando area.
Gillum brought Democrats roaring to their feet in Manatee County with a soaring speech about being raised by a hardworking dad who never got past fourth grade, and a mother who never got past high school.
Democrats need a nominee who will take a progressive agenda to every corner of the Sunshine State, he said, including the conservative Panhandle, where Floridian families struggle to make ends meet and vent over high-stakes testing in schools just like elsewhere in Florida.
"They're as frustrated, those rural, white working-class voters, as much as the black and the Latino working-class voters," declared Gillum, who would be Florida's first African-American gubernatorial nominee. "Don't let them separate us in that way. We have a lot more in common than we do that separates ourselves."
Gillum spoke at a Manatee County Democratic Party fundraising dinner, along with primary rivals Gwen Graham, 54, a former congresswoman from Tallahassee and daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham; and Chris King, an Orlando area businessman and political newcomer. Both were fine speakers, easily outshined by Gillum. Another potentially strong candidate, multi-millionaire businessman and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, 55, had to cancel at the last minute because his father is gravely ill.
Earlier Friday in Tampa, Morgan wowed a Tiger Bay luncheon with humor, warmth, blunt talk and a crystal-clear agenda: He would serve just one term focusing, above all else, on raising the minimum wage so that Floridians can work 40 hours a week without being impoverished.
The ability to fire up and charm a crowd with a stump speech does not necessarily translate to victory. If it did, the ultra-programmed Rick Scott probably would not be a two-term governor. But Donald Trump can testify on how charisma on a podium can't be underestimated either.
Here's a quick summary of the Democrats' early performances:
From the speech: "Be good to people. . . . Many of the problems we've discussed today could be fixed if we made 'Be Good to People' part of our state motto. . . . I'm a proud daughter of this state, born and raised here, but I have had enough."
Priorities: Improving public schools, protecting the environment, fighting for women's rights — from abortion to equal pay, expanding health care access.
Delivery: B-. Confident and solid, but also conventional. Reading her remarks, she sounded more scripted than heartfelt.
Big question: Can Graham, whose warmth up close far exceeds her stump speech performances, live up to high expectations that come from winning a strongly GOP House seat and being the daughter of Bob Graham?
From the speech: "What you need to know about me is that if you allow me to be the Democratic nominee for governor that I will get up every day fighting for the things that we believe in. And you don't have to trust my words. You can judge me by my action."
Priorities: "Unshackling" teachers from excess high-stakes testing, making Florida the nation's solar power capital, environmental protection, expanding access to health care, improving transportation.
Delivery: A-. Gillum is a gifted speaker, has an inspirational personal story, and brings youthful charisma that Democrats haven't seen in, well, forever.
Big question: The style is strong, but the substance and staying power remain uncertain for this lifelong politician/party activist.
From the speech: "Democrats have got to do this differently in 2018. . . . We have got to think bigger, we have got to put a candidate in this race that has the fire in the belly, that is swinging for the fences, that is helping people dream again."
Priorities: Affordable housing, education, the environment, but above all else, to refocus economic development efforts on growing Florida-based businesses.
Delivery: C+. Much of the crowd Friday night ignored him. He needs seasoning, but also showed substance, passion and flashes of being refreshingly unconventional.
Big question: Why is King running for governor, rather than county commission or state House? Big egos are essential in politics, but the Democratic field already offers youth (Gillum) and super successful entrepreneurs (Levine and maybe Morgan).
From the speech: "Write down one thing that Tallahassee has ever done to make your life better."
Priorities: Raise the minimum wage, reform Florida drug laws, rein in public education money flowing to privately operated charter schools.
Delivery: A. He is funny and smart, a non-politician with a clear, simple, gutsy agenda.
The big question: Will Morgan run? He sounded like it Friday.