Never Let Them See You Sweat: The Florida Senate Race

BY Gwen Ifill  October 15, 2010 at 11:45 AM EST

Republican Marco Rubio, Independent Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek

Kendrick Meek was in the basement of St. John First Baptist Church, a black congregation in the impoverished South Florida town of Belle Glade, sweating up a storm. The post-Sunday service crowd was dressed to the nines and fanning themselves furiously with cardboard fans printed up on behalf of a local ballot initiative.

Meek, the Democratic Senate nominee and a Congressman from Miami, is working overtime these days to convince Democrats that Gov. Charlie Crist – the Republican-turned-independent also running for Senate – is not a reasonable choice for Obama voters.

“As my mama used to say,” Meek said, using his hand to wipe his damp brow. “It’s a strange frog that won’t praise its own pond. And if you’ve got folks here that are talking about ‘I want to support the guy who was a Republican just six months ago,’ that had the same views as the guy I’m trying to stop from getting elected, that’s almost like saying, let’s get the lead poacher and make him the game warden!”

The crowd laughed and applauded, but Meek was still sweating.

So is Charlie Crist. It’s just harder to tell (more on that in a moment). He spent the week I visited plying the back rooms of Democratic clubs in South Florida, attempting to woo them away from their chosen nominee. And to some degree, he succeeded. Crist, who abandoned his old party earlier this year, can only win if he convinces enough Democrats that Meek cannot.

“When you run as an independent, I’m really running against the system more than anybody in the race,” he said. “And when you do that, it is like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.”

And can he still win over Republicans? “There are reasonable Republicans left, and we’re reaching out to them,” he said. “My mother and father happen to be Republicans, and my wife as well.”

I had to interject. “But they’re you’re mother and father!”

“Of course they are,” he replied. “But there are others too.”

Polls show there are others, but not many of them. According to the most recent statewide survey, Republican nominee Marco Rubio, the former Florida House Speaker who was named this week as one of Time Magazine’s Top 40 Leaders under the age of 40, has locked up 85 percent of them.

Rubio, who has led both Crist and Meek in every poll since August, has clearly decided the race is his to lose – or to screw up.

Joined by about 50 supporters at a Tampa GOP headquarters on Wednesday, he brought along another rising GOP star, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal spent an inordinately long time talking about oil spill cleanup before formally endorsing him.

Rubio called his race “perhaps the most important election in our lifetime.” Also in “modern American history.” And he suggested that his election could bring the nation back from the brink.

“This race is a referendum on nothing less than our identity as a country and as a people,” Rubio said to a wilting crowd also equipped with imprinted cardboard fans. “What we’re asking you to decide is whether America wants to remain exceptional or whether we want her to become like all these other countries in the world.”

Rubio spoke for a few minutes, then – without shaking a single hand or greeting a single voter – he and Jindal raced out a side door to their waiting cars. There would be no mistakes made by this frontrunner on this day.

Meek shakes every hand. He sweats more because running uphill is harder.

Crist not only shakes every hand, but engages in conversation with every voter.

He also makes sure no one ever sees him sweat. Everywhere he goes, an aide brings along his lucky football – and a small electric fan that’s always placed at his feet.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the Washington Week website. Click here for list of guests on this Friday’s roundtable.