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Democrat Kendrick Meek facing uphill battle in Florida Senate race

Struggle to connect

Simon Lewenberg, 87, talks with Kendrick Meek and his wife, Leslie, as they make a stop at the Sunrise Lakes senior community.
Simon Lewenberg, 87, talks with Kendrick Meek and his wife, Leslie, as they make a stop at the Sunrise Lakes senior community. (Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)

Greene hopes to capitalize on what some national Democrats view as a lackluster, unfocused campaign by Meek. Though he's been at it for about 19 months, Meek has failed to convince many in Washington that he has either the message or the money to break through in a diverse, costly state of more than 18 million people. That view has been hardened by Meek's failure to exploit the turmoil within the Republican Party and lock up Democratic voters before Crist began wooing them.

Some in Meek's campaign say many have written off the congressman because of his race; no African American has ever won statewide office in Florida.

"I am offended by the number of Democrats that say this guy who has done everything right -- a state trooper, a state legislator who passed limits on class sizes in Florida, a congressman who has taken a lot of political risks to support almost the entire Barack Obama agenda -- can't win," said Steve Murphy, a media consultant working for Meek. "Why are they making that supposition? Because he's an African American."

Meek's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus have criticized President Obama for not doing more to boost a potentially groundbreaking campaign. The White House is employing Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel next week to help Meek raise money. Meek will get his chance to prove his doubters wrong in the primary. He effectively inherited his House seat from his mother, Carrie Meek, a beloved civil rights pioneer, but Meek says his own work in the Senate race will pay off. Where most candidates simply pay a $10,000 filing fee to get their names on the ballot, for instance, Meek traversed Florida's 67 counties to gather the 112,476 required voter signatures. Yet Democrats continue to gravitate toward Crist, who since leaving the GOP in April has refashioned his campaign with an almost-liberal agenda.

"I'm very fond of Kendrick Meek and to not support the Democrat is a first for me, but I truly think Charlie is the best man for this job," said Lance Block, a major Democratic donor who recently opened his home for a $4,800-a-person fundraiser for Crist. "Between Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist, I like Charlie's chances better."

Behind in polls

In a three-way race, recent polls show Meek trailing about 10 points behind Crist and Rubio. But the data are more troubling in the Democratic primary, where Greene has surged past Meek, 33 percent to 23 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday.

Meek's view is that once voters get to know him, he will surge. If he gets within striking distance of Rubio, the theory goes, Democrats will abandon Crist in favor of one of their own.

"If Kendrick gets out of this primary, it's a different kind of game," said Steven Schale, who managed Obama's winning Florida campaign.

But that's a big if. Since launching his bid on the April 30 filing deadline, Greene has poured more than $6 million of his own money into the race, casting himself on the airwaves as a political outsider who knows how to bring new jobs to a state shackled by 11.4 percent unemployment.

At a Democratic party dinner last weekend in Hollywood, Greene said: "I've lived the American dream. Unfortunately, because of Washington's failures, too many Americans live the American nightmare." It's a bold line coming from a man who bet on the housing market to collapse. The audience of 1,100 gave Greene tepid applause, in stark contrast to the roaring ovation Meek enjoyed when he spoke an hour later.

Meek has been playing to his base. "Of the four major candidates, including my Democratic opponent, I am the only candidate that hasn't run as a Republican in the past," he says over and over. It's his go-to line, which he follows up by saying he's the only candidate who was against offshore oil drilling before and after the gulf spill, the only one who fought for smaller class sizes, the only one who worked for health-care reform.

Meek's pedigree has brought him controversy. He helped deliver federal funding for a biopharmaceutical park while the developer hired Carrie Meek as a consultant and leased her a Cadillac Escalade. The project was never built and Meek has said his mother's role had nothing to do with his effort, but Greene has seized on the episode to paint him as crooked.

Nevertheless, Meek enjoys the backing of most of the state's Democratic elected officials, and his trump card is Bill Clinton. Their closeness dates to 1991, when Clinton, then the Arkansas governor, visited Tallahassee, and Meek, then a state trooper, was dispatched to pick him up at the airport. Clinton forgot to pack deodorant, Meek recalled, so he took the future president to the Suwannee Swifty, a roadside convenience store.

After a full day of campaigning last week, Meek arrived home to the familiar streets of Liberty City and stepped into a union hall to the chants of his constituents.

"We live in the world of low expectations," he told them. "We know what people think when we set out and do things. But we've seen amazing things done."

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