Gov. Lawton Chiles was locked in a tight re-election battle with Jeb Bush in 1994 when he delivered his most memorable line during the campaign's last debate in Tampa.
"The old he-coon walks just before the light of day.''
It was an unscripted moment that crystallized their differences. Chiles came off as genuine and signaled to Floridians he was one of them. At that point Bush was the untested, cheerless newcomer with the famous name. Chiles eked out a win a few days later. Florida hasn't elected a Democrat as governor since.
Monday night in Tampa, there will be another final gubernatorial debate. Democrat Alex Sink is in a close race with Republican Rick Scott — and she needs a he-coon moment.
The state's chief financial officer has yet to drive home the same essential point Chiles made 16 years ago: She is the candidate who knows Florida best and has the proven track record in public office and private business. Scott is the new arrival who knows little about the state or its issues and is spending his family's millions to buy the Governor's Mansion.
The comparisons between 1994 and 2010 aren't exact, of course. Sink is not Chiles, who was the incumbent, a former U.S. senator and already a political legend. But then Scott certainly is not Bush, who had experience in politics, served for a time as state commerce secretary and even then knew public policy far better than a disgraced former hospital executive who moved to Naples seven years ago.
But there are intriguing similarities between these two elections.
In the 1994 midterms, voters were angry with Washington and the Democrats who controlled Congress. Newt Gingrich drew sharp partisan lines, sold the Contract With America and rode a wave of discontent to a Republican takeover of Congress for the first time in 40 years.
Yet Chiles was able to swim against that tide, separate himself from the national political battles and come from behind to win.
Fast forward to the 2010 midterms. The electorate is even angrier, and the economy has yet to recover from the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Republicans are poised to once again take over at least the U.S. House. President Barack Obama, who won Florida just two years ago, is so unpopular that Republicans are using him to hammer Democrats in races for everything from governor to congressional seats to the county commission.
And Sink still is effectively tied with Scott.
Against the national political backdrop, that is no small achievement. With just one statewide campaign under her belt, Sink is hardly a household name. She's hanging in there even though Scott has spent at least $60 million and flooded the air with slick television ads.
In a normal year, this would not even be a close call. Scott is an unknown who was rejected by his own party until he upset Attorney General Bill McCollum in the Republican primary. He ran a hospital company that paid record fines for Medicare fraud; that stain alone usually would be impossible to overcome. If Democrats cannot beat a stranger with so much baggage and so little to offer, they don't deserve to ever move back into the Governor's Mansion.
Sink has made it this far. Now she needs to close the sale this week, starting with Monday night's debate. Her performance in last week's debate was uneven at best. She needs to be sharper, quicker and less scripted. She cannot let Scott tie her to Obama, and she cannot let his vague answers go unchallenged.
Don't underestimate the sophistication of Florida voters. They are still a middle-of-the-road, pragmatic bunch. They care about protecting the environment, managing growth, improving schools and preserving the rights of individuals. They are pretty good at sorting out which politicians are genuine and which ones are not.
Voters are more than capable of distinguishing between the national political noise and what's best for Florida. That's what they did in 1994, and Sink is depending on them to do it again.
But she sure could provide some clarity with a he-coon moment.