By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 24, 2010……….Democratic voters will pick their nominee for U.S. Senate Tuesday, ending a nasty primary between U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and real estate mogul Jeff Greene with a nomination that had once been presumed to be Meek’s for the taking.
When former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who was replaced by Sen. George LeMieux, announced he wouldn’t run for re-election in January 2009, Meek became the first candidate to jump into the Senate race. Other Democrats, including presumptive gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, eyed the race, but Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, was rumored to be considering running. Crist officially entered the race later in the spring and other Democrats backed away from facing the popular governor, who looked unbeatable at the time.
Crist was locked in a high-profile and contentious primary for the Republican nomination with former House Speaker Marco Rubio, leaving the Democratic field to Meek, who focused on building a ground game and raising money for what was presumed to be an expensive fall campaign. Meek locked up the support of the state and national party establishments early and qualified for office by petition, quietly building a statewide ground operation for the fall campaign.
The primary field was not as clear as he thought, however. On the final day of qualifying Greene, a billionaire with a checkered past, entered the primary and quickly began flooding the airwaves with television commercials, pushing Meek even further off the political radar.
Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre – who is well-known in South Florida but hasn’t polled well at all – also got in the race.
But it was Greene’s money and brash accusations that Meek was essentially corrupt that defined the contest. Greene spent $23 million of his own money to go from being a virtual unknown to being tied with Meek – and leading him in some polls – by mid-summer.
Meek fought back, however, digging into the war chest he had wanted to save for the fall to spend $4.7 million, arguing in television commercials that Greene made his money betting on homeowners defaulting on their mortgages. Greene was also dogged by articles about his raunchy parties on his yacht, Summerwind, and his associations with figures such as Mike Tyson, who was the best man at his wedding.
The race turned ugly, with Meek calling Greene “a bad man” and Greene calling Meek “corrupt.” Meek also accused Greene of attacking his family for raising allegations his mother got a job and a car from a Liberty City developer who planned a project Meek pushed, which never came to fruition. The would-be developer has since been arrested, and Greene said he was criticizing Meek, not his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who remains a beloved icon in the South Florida African-American community.
It all led to Tuesday, when Meek entered the final day of voting confident enough to issue a campaign schedule for Wednesday, planning to thank supporters in Miami, Boca Raton, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers. Meek was perhaps buoyed by a final Quinnipiac University poll Monday that showed him leading Greene 39-29 percent, with more of his supporters saying their minds were firmly made up than Greene’s.
By contrast, Greene planned to campaign Tuesday in Democratic-vote-rich Broward County, visiting condominiums in Pembroke Pines, Tamarac, and Coconut Creek. His campaign made no mention of Wednesday events.
In national interviews this week, both men continued to criticize each other, even as they began talking about party reconciliation.
“I’m not in a position to see Jeff Greene as the nominee for Democrats here in Florida,” Meek said on MSNBC Monday. “His record and commitment to public service is just not there. I don’t like to play in hypotheticals.”
“Kendrick Meek’s is trying to make this about Lindsey Lohan,” Greene said in a separate interview with the station, referring to a picture that has made the blog rounds showing Greene partying with the bad-girl actress . “There’s 1.1 million people unemployed in Florida. You know Kendrick Meek has been in Congress for eight years. He’s authored 77 bills, and not a single bill has been passed. If I let someone sleep on our boat for two nights, I don’t think that’s what’s important. The people in Florida are suffering.”
In his interview, Meek said he was not worried that he will enter the general election weakened by the primary if he emerges victorious Tuesday. Already behind Crist and Rubio in fundraising and the primary, Meek had to spend precious resources battling Greene ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
The general election, a two-month sprint that begins in earnest Wednesday, will be shorter than the primary, he said.
“We’ll have the resources,” Meek said. “We have general election dollars in holding. We’re close enough to the November election where folks will start voting early on.”
Meek also brushed of polls showing both him and Greene far behind Meek and Rubio at the start of general election. In Quinnipiac’s Aug. 19 poll, Crist led Rubio 39-32 percent, with Meek gaining 16 percent. Greene did not fare any better. In that hypothetical match-up, Crist got 40 percent to Rubio’s 32 percent and Greene’s 15.
“I’ve always said that I’m the David in this race,” Meek said. “We play the David role well, and we all know what happened to Goliath in that story. My (Election Day) is going to start at 4:30 a.m. at a bus terminal as if I’m 12 points down or 20 points down and encouraging every voter to vote.”
During his final campaign swing through Tallahassee, Greene expressed confidence he could make the race with Crist and Rubio competitive too.
“There’s only one Democrat who’s going to be running after (Tuesday), hopefully it’s going to be me,” he said. “It’ll be against two Republicans. Charlie Crist is a right-wing Republican who was failing in his primary and chose to run as an independent. I think that no Democrat in his right mind will be supporting Charlie Crist.
Greene said independent voters, who Crist is doing well with so far in general election polls, would reconsider their support of the independent governor after the fall campaign begins.
“No one has examined Charlie Crist’s record for months,” he said. “I think that after tomorrow, the people of Florida are going to start looking and have a clear choice. I think the people of Florida will truly focus on who Charlie Crist is, and they’ll realize this guy doesn’t deserve to go to the Senate. He deserves to be fired.”
Greene said rumors this summer that Crist might caucus with Democrats in the Senate if he has elected, which appeared to have helped him win over Democratic-leaning independents, would come back to hurt him with reliably-Democratic voters in the fall.
“I will caucus with the Democrats, for sure, absolutely 100 percent,” he said. “I will fight to enhance the ideals and goals of the Democratic Party when I get to Washington. Charlie Crist is a Republican. He’s trying to be a make-believe independent, but it’s just not the case.”
It will all be naught, however, if polls show him faltering against Meek hold true Tuesday night.