LARGO — Standing before an audience of seniors who can well remember black-and-white sitcoms, Alex Sink da-dum-dums her way through a few bars of the theme song to the Andy Griffith Show, and says she grew up in a real-life Mayberry.
Sink makes sure her listeners know that she herself, age 65, has enrolled in Medicare. "Boy that was a trip, figuring out how to sign up," she quips, and just about all 60 people with her chuckle in agreement.
But the Democratic congressional candidate's voice turns angry as she discusses Social Security. "You hear these people talk about entitlement programs. I am sorry. Social Security's not an entitlement program. I paid. We earned it."
And here, the crowd's chuckles give way to applause.
To Democrats hoping to retake a congressional seat that has belonged to Republicans since before the Andy Griffith Show, it's impossible to underestimate the importance of Pinellas County's senior vote. About one in four registered voters in Pinellas' Congressional District 13 is over 65.
"Fifty percent of the voters in this race are going to be over 60 — that's our projection," Sink told a reporter before her recent talk at the Palms of Largo retirement complex.
Sure enough, a new Tampa Bay Times analysis found that 56 percent of the people who have sent in mail ballots so far are age 65 or older, and 80 percent are 55 and older. This explains the fire-storm of television commercials — not all of them true — attacking both candidates on Social Security and Medicare.
It also explains why Sink is spending much of her time campaigning in senior centers from St. Petersburg to Clearwater, presenting herself as the North-Carolina-farm-girl-turned-Florida-bank-president who will go "to Washington to protect Social Security and Medicare."
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Anyone watching television in Pinellas County has probably seen the fierce and unrelenting campaign commercials from Sink and supporting groups that say Republican David Jolly wants to weaken Social Security.
In a debate this week, Jolly told Sink she was playing "fast and loose with the truth."
"Alex you have been misrepresenting my position on this on television for 10 days now. The Tampa Bay Times has called it a lie. You stand by it.'' (Politifact Florida ruled a Democratic robocall with a similar message "mostly false.")
Jolly was referring to a claim that he wants to privatize Social Security. That's not his position, he said. He wants to guarantee Social Security for everyone who gets it now, and everyone who has worked for more than 10 years. However, he said, a wide-ranging discussion is needed about how to give the program long-term stability, a discussion that should include private accounts.
A Democratic group backing Sink, the House Majority PAC, has run a television ad saying "don't let David Jolly jeopardize Social Security." It points out that Jolly lobbied for a group that called for serious changes to Social Security — including turning it into a "defined benefit" program for people under 50. Jolly has said he didn't lobby for that provision. The commercial also used AARP's logo without permission, prompting AARP to disavow it.
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In contrast to the brutal ads, Sink herself is as sweet as Aunt Bee's home-baked pies when she shows up at senior centers.
She lets people know she grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., the town that inspired the fictional Mayberry on the show, and that Andy Griffith went to high school with her mother. She tells stories of growing up on the family farm.
Sink frequently has been called a stiff and awkward campaigner who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by losing the 2010 governor's race to self-financed political newcomer Rick Scott. But she seems quite at ease as she visits senior centers like St. Petersburg's Bon Secours Maria Manor and Largo's Cabot Cove.
"Is it okay if I brag on my children a little bit?"
In a room full of grandparents, there is no possible answer but yes. She tells them about her late husband Bill McBride, their daughter the medical student and their son the law student who just got a job.
When she gets to the issues, Sink says, "I intend to go to Congress and be your advocate to protect Social Security and Medicare. … Don't believe these scare tactics about Social Security."
The program's long-term financial health needs discussion, she says, but it "is well-funded for the next 20 years."
If there's any issue more discussed in this race than Social Security and Medicare, it's the Affordable Care Act.
Jolly's television ads slam Sink as an Obamacare supporter, and it's clear his strategy is to tie her to the still-controversial law, a kiss of death for many voters.
So it's interesting that in some visits, she brings up Obamacare herself. Last month she gave her talk at Bon Secours and forgot to mention it until a resident asked about it. She went back to the microphone. "This is really important," she said. "My opponent is on record and says over and over again that the first day he's in Congress he wants to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. My position is it's not perfect by any stretch and there are things about it that need to be fixed."
That's good news to some.
"I like her stand on Obamacare," said Bettye Strickland, 83, of the Palms of Largo. "She said let's fix what's wrong
But will enough people agree to push Sink into Congress? It may depend on how many voters are like Carl Kraus, 97, a Jolly supporter who doesn't like Sink's approach to Obamacare.
"Needs a lot of fixing, in my estimation," he said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232