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Democrats mutiny against state leader

Florida Democrats, fed up with humiliating election-year losses and struggling to become relevant again, are in open revolt against their leader.

Party Chairman Bob Poe says he's not quitting and has called a closed-door meeting of Democratic leaders Saturday to talk about rebuilding the party. But across the state, legislators, labor leaders and grass roots activists say Poe must go.

"He's going to have to leave," said Diane Glasser, a Democratic state committeewoman from Broward, the biggest Democratic county in the state. There is too much at stake in Florida in the 2004 presidential campaign, Glasser said. If Poe is still in charge, then Democrats "will hang him from a tree."

Florida AFL-CIO president Cindy Hall said Poe should follow the lead of U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, who quit as House minority leader after the disastrous Nov. 5 elections.

"Bob should come to his senses and realize that, for lack of a better word, he's a loser," said Leon County state committeeman Jon Ausman. "He's not going to win us any elections."

Democratic lawmakers, who find themselves with less power than at any time since Reconstruction, seem to agree.

"Part of the problem is that we continue to reward a lack of results," said state Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, a football coach. "Where I come from, when you lose, you lose. We have to come to terms with how poorly we did."

Democrats raised more than $21-million during the 2002 election cycle, about a third of what Republicans raised, but a strong showing considering their lack of influence across state government.

Then came the election, and things got worse for Democrats. Much worse.

While Bill McBride was getting just 43 percent of the vote against Gov. Jeb Bush, Republicans completed a clean sweep of the Cabinet and added to lopsided margins in the Legislature. The GOP picked up two new congressional seats and unseated Democratic U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman of Dunnellon.

For good measure, Republicans ended the career of one of the few remaining pillars of the Democratic Party, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was running for an open state Senate seat.

The thrashing at the polls has Democrats engaged in an extraordinary round of soul-searching and demanding a bottom-up overhaul of their party.

Democrats are complaining about a lack of coordination, a fuzzy message, and a sloppy grass roots effort. Poe is getting most of the blame.

"Democrats had best understand a get-out-the-vote in the African-American community is not a three-week deal," said James Harris, a Democratic strategist. "The Republicans are cutting into our base, and we're not doing anything to cut into theirs."

Not all Democrats are ready to fire Poe. "I'm in a wait-and-see mode," said Pasco County Democratic Party Chairwoman LaVaunne Miller. "The wait is not going to be real long, but I'm willing to listen and work with him."

With only 39 seats in the 120-member state House, Democrats realize they won't be a force. In the Senate, they hold 14 of 40 seats.

"The House (Democrats) can't stop a thing," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa. "We can stop something. But we have to be prepared. With 14 of us we can't afford not to be prepared. It's going to be up to the 14 of us to protect this state."

Newly elected state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a 31-year-old West Palm Beach lawyer, is one of the party's few success stories of 2002. Calling himself "a rare survivor of the disaster of 2002," he sent an opinion piece to newspapers Thursday, urging Democrats to figure out what they stand for rather than what they are against.

"We cannot build a party on opposing everything that Gov. Bush supports," Aronberg wrote.

Democrats say their party's ideas still appeal to voters, citing popular Democrat-backed constitutional amendments requiring smaller classes, pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and a new university governance system.

Under party rules, Poe can't be ousted Saturday. But if he loses the support of Democratic leaders in the state's largest counties, they could force a vote as early as next month.

The name most often mentioned as a possible replacement is Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox.

"My term ends in 2004 and I intend to serve out the term. It's as simple as that," Poe said. "I feel I have an obligation and a responsibility to help chart the course for the future."

A former marketing and radio executive, Poe was the fourth party chairman in less than two years when he took over in 2000. He quickly diagnosed the party's basic weakness: "a failure to communicate."

Rep. Christopher Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he can't count on the party any more. He has formed his own political action committee to pay for his get-out-the-vote efforts.

"Bob Poe should say, "I resign.' Meeting over," Smith said. "It's hard to lead people who say you're not a legitimate leader."

_ Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.