Florida’s candidates for governor make last-ditch trips through Tampa Bay

Most major candidates will have visited Tampa Bay in the week before Tuesday's primary.
Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gwen Graham, right, helps with serving Sunday dinners with volunteer Bonnie Rushing during a campaign stop at the Open Cafe in east Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Tampa Bay Times]
Florida Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Gwen Graham, right, helps with serving Sunday dinners with volunteer Bonnie Rushing during a campaign stop at the Open Cafe in east Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 26, 2018|Updated Aug. 27, 2018

Tampa Bay, as always, is playing a central role in the final moments before Florida's primary election on Tuesday with a flurry of last-minute campaign appearances in the region.

On Sunday, Gwen Graham, the former U.S. Representative and Democratic frontrunner, chose Tampa for her visit on the valuable final Sunday of early voting.

At East Tampa's Open Cafe, Graham hugged diners, almost all who had come straight from church, and served plates of fried chicken, collard greens, rice and mac and cheese.

An overwhelmingly black crowd of about 100 attended, some of whom had voted with fellow parishioners on "Souls to the Polls" voting drives. But most planned to eat lunch first before waiting in long lines.

Meeting voters in person, Graham said, remains important.

"For me, every single day is about connecting with people, meeting people, talking to them," she said.

To some, like John Moore, 63, who was heading to vote straight after lunch, that's important.

"I am old school," he said. "There is something about seeing someone face to face when they tell me what they are going to do for my community. That matters more than ads."

Final appeals could make the difference in a race that has cost more than $150 million among the seven major candidates — much of that spent on TV advertising. Already, more than 1.6 million Floridians had cast ballots before the last weekend of early voting. One-in-six of those ballots came from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

On Thursday, it was Graham's fellow Democrat, Andrew Gillum, who courted Tampa Bay voters while at Rush Hour Chicken & Waffles in St. Petersburg.

Several dozen supporters came out to meet the man, whose campaign has explicitly targeted voters of color throughout the race, as rap songs "My President" by Young Jeezy and Migos' "Walk It Talk It" blared in the background.

Gillum's campaign insists there is a "surge" of grassroots energy surrounding the candidate, who was endorsed in early August by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a rock star among progressives.

"Every location we go, people are excited," Gillum said.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, another Democratic frontrunner for governor, was with Gillum at another Thursday event, this one with the Hillsborough Association of School Administrators. Levine had to cancel an event in Tampa Sunday night.

Democratic hopeful Chris King paid his respects to the region multiple times. King visited the Iberian Rooster in downtown St. Petersburg on Sunday evening, after hitting Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach on Thursday.

Jeff Greene was the only major Democrat who didn't make it to the region in the last week of the campaign. Greene planned to spend Monday and Tuesday in Jacksonville, Orlando and South Florida, a spokeswoman said.
Among Republicans, it was Adam Putnam who made his rounds.

On Saturday, the agriculture commissioner concluded a nine-day, 20-stop, bus tour with a barbecue at an east Hillsborough dairy processing facility.
Hundreds braved the rain in Temple Terrace to lunch on barbecue, boiled peanuts and fried green tomatoes. As a bluegrass band played, Putnam fans questioned how their candidate might lose to the apparent GOP frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a figure unfamiliar to the state political scene.

"Its very frustrating. We don't know who (DeSantis) is," said trucking company president Jeff Marple of Thonotosassa. "At some point we need to get a sense of what is his fiber, and does he represent the best interests of Florida. You can't just go behind a national platform and say that's what's best for Florida.

Putnam highlighted his deep knowledge of Florida, repeatedly mentioning obscure small towns — Sanford, Marianna, Pensacola — and said he doubted DeSantis could pinpoint them on a map.

The commissioner planned to hold a rally Monday morning with Attorney General — and noted friend of President Donald Trump — Pam Bondi at The Columbia in Ybor.

DeSantis plans to visit Palm Harbor on Monday, on his way to Versailles Cuban Bakery, a traditional Republican campaign stop in Miami.

Though he has been outspent two-to-one by Putnam, DeSantis has steadily polled ahead dating back to the first debate between the two, held on Fox News in late June. DeSantis' fortunes hinged nearly entirely on the support of Trump, who endorsed him on June 22. Where Putnam has spent $35 million on things like campaign barbecues and television commercials, DeSantis found a far cheaper way to reach voters through interviews on Fox News.

The campaign push was interrupted Sunday evening, as news broke of a mass shooting in Jacksonville, forcing DeSantis to scrap an appearance there Monday.

All five Democrats quickly weighed in on the tragedy by decrying gun violence and calling on leaders to take action. DeSantis and Putnam later offered condolences and their thoughts and prayers to the victims.

Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary and Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed reporting. Contact Langston Taylor at Follow @langstonitaylor.