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There's no road trip quite like a political campaign, and the fun's about to begin

The Fourth of July isn't just for fireworks and flying the flag. This holiday weekend traditionally ushers in the fall campaign season in even-numbered years.

That makes it a good time to reflect and reminisce about elections past — the color, the characters, the drama, the gaffes.

Every campaign teaches important lessons. The first time I covered a statewide race from wire to wire was 1986, I spent much of the time with Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez, who was seeking to become only the second Republican governor since Reconstruction.

At the outset of that campaign, few people thought Martinez could win. After all, Florida was still a strongly Democratic state then. I watched a young law school student named Brian Ballard fetch honey-roasted almonds and soft drinks for the candidate from the back of the campaign plane.

On road trips, a young man named Tom Beard, the son of state Sen. Malcolm Beard, the former Hillsborough County sheriff, drove a campaign RV. I paid Beard no mind. Big mistake. After Martinez got elected, he placed Beard on the Public Service Commission.

It matters who's driving the candidate around.

Jeb Bush was a lot of fun to travel with. His campaign caravans were always extremely well organized, and there was always a pitcher of ice cold beer for the long rides back to Tallahassee.

Bush was a highly disciplined candidate with reporters around, and he liked the people around him to show the same level of discipline. So when press aide Todd Harris showed up at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville in 2002 sporting a three-day growth, Bush took one look at him and said, "You know, Todd, it's okay to shave once in a while."

I was one of only two reporters flying over downtown Orlando with candidate Charlie Crist in 2006 when the plane suddenly got very silent. Crist immediately knew that sound — or lack of sound — meant the plane had lost an engine. The pilot quickly shut the curtain so that none of us could witness the panic in the cockpit, but the crippled aircraft landed safely and Crist immediately telephoned his father.

A less stressful but no less revealing moment occurred later in that campaign, when Crist's campaign manager, George LeMieux, reveled in the luck of having Crist "24/7" for campaign appearances.

Crist could afford to outwork his opponents. He had no wife, no kids and no lawn to mow, and could be a perpetual office-seeker. It was as if Crist had been born to run for office.

In 2004, I was following U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came into town to help him raise money. McConnell and I rode together in the back of a car and had an off-the-record talk about Florida politics. I learned a lot that night about how folks in Washington perceived Katherine Harris.

On Election Night 1994, I was given the thankless job of writing the wrapup story on Cabinet races, which would have been a crushing bore but for one thing: A Republican upstart, retired Marine Corps Gen. Bob Milligan, was dislodging the veteran Comptroller Gerald Lewis after two decades.

The story was almost done, and deadline was fast approaching, but the editors needed a quote from Milligan declaring victory. The problem was, he wouldn't. It seemed mathematically impossible that Lewis could eke out a victory, so I called Milligan back at his home in Panama City to try one last time.

"General," I said, "We just learned that the Miami Herald is projecting you as a winner!" Milligan turned away from the phone and I heard him repeat my "projection," which was pure fiction. Newspapers don't "project" winners. But Milligan came back to the phone with a triumphant sound in his voice, and I got the quote I needed.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

There's no road trip quite like a political campaign, and the fun's about to begin 07/02/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 9:22pm]
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