By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, July 21, 2009……In the race to replace term-limited Tampa Sen. Victor Crist next year, state Rep. Kevin Ambler thinks he is in a league of his own.
Going from being a county commissioner to the Legislature “is like a being a baseball player and thinking you’re going to switch sports and be first string on the football team,” Ambler, of Tampa, told the News Service of Florida in an interview. “I already know the game and I already know the players. I think Jim Norman would make a good House member and I would be privileged to be his mentor and help him get up to speed on the issues.”
Not surprisingly, his opponent for the Republican nomination and current Hillsborough County Commissioner Norman disagrees. And so does future Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who will assume the chamber’s gavel when Crist’s successor takes office.
“For 15 years as a county commissioner, and even more as a community leader, Jim Norman has earned the trust and respect of his neighbors,” Haridopolos said in a statement announcing his unusual endorsement in a contested primary. “His record of civic achievement is built on solid conservative values, and with the support of the people of Pasco and Hillsborough Counties, he will be a great senator.”
Norman was also endorsed by the Senate’s top budget man JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and the chairman of the Senate’s select committee on the economy, Don Gaetz of Niceville. But that isn’t enough to stop Ambler from believing that the eight year edge in legislative service he will have on Norman when voters in Hillsborough and Pasco counties have to choose between them next year will come in handy.
“If I have been a good member (of the House) and if I’ve fulfilled my promises, I think having the amount of experience you acquire doing that is very important,” Ambler said. “If I am able to communicate to the voters effectively that real experience matters, I think it will be an advantage.”
But the outsider candidate with the insider support thinks endorsements like Haridopolos’ will make for an effective counter to that line of attack.
“When the leaders of the particular House endorse me to say they want me to work side-by-side with them, that says a lot,” Norman said in a separate interview with the News Service. “I’m a little guy and I’m humbled by their support. It’s pretty daunting to have the leadership reach down and support me.”
In a district Crist won 70 percent of the vote in 2006 despite the area having a slight Democratic voter registration advantage as of last year’s presidential election, the experience argument may worth winning. No Democrats have filed to run for the seat next year, and the party did not field a candidate against Crist in 2006.
Ambler may think the county commission is insufficient preparation for the Legislature’s upper chamber, but Norman attributes his work there with winning him support of the veteran senators.
“I’ve worked closely with the legislative delegation, which is why I believe they’ve given me such a strong endorsement,” Norman said. “I’m not an unknown. I’m somebody who has established that I’m a conservative. People know where I come down on the issues, whether they’re fiscal or social.”
Norman also thinks his local ties will give him an edge over Ambler in the primary next year. He pointed out that before he won his countywide District 5 commission seat in 2000 he represented the panel’s second district, which covers the northern, most populous part of the county.
“There’s big guys out there with a lot of lobbyist support, but this is Hillsborough County,” Norman said. “I have very strong support from the people who live here. That’s who elected me. I have been on the ballot 17 years. Those people think I have enough experience.”
But for all the talk of experience between the two candidates to replace Crist, who has been in the Legislature since 1992, neither man is familiar with running a race in two large, heavily populated counties at the same time. The difference explains why the race has already begun in earnest a full year before the primary, Ambler said.
“I’ve run a lot of tough races, but it’s three times the geographic area (of my House district), so it presents a challenge,” Ambler said. “When I ran my first House race, I didn’t announce until October of the year before (the election). Now I’ve filed 2 years early. You need a longer period of time to communicate with the voters in such a large area.”
A successful District 12 candidate would also need money, Ambler added, touting the $93,778 he raised between April and June to bring his total fundraising this year to $151,674. “The initial name of the game is getting out there and raising money in an expensive media district,” he said.
Norman, who raised $15,205 for the second fundraising quarter to bring his total to $268,881, said he would focus more on meeting voters face-to-face than hand-to-wallet – though he’s had success there too. His campaign has been one of the most successful at raising money among all Senate candidates.
“I have a different style of campaigning than most people who are in elected office,” Norman said. “Back when I first got elected, I only won by going door-to-door and asking people if there was something I could do for them.”
And despite his fundraising prowess, he said that’s what he plans to do this time around.
“I’m not going to win races by sitting in an office and running flyers and making TV ads,” he said. “My constituents will know me. Money is nice, but I’m more or less depending on sitting in people’s living rooms.