KISSIMMEE, Fla. - With all the attention being paid to the Republican Senate primary between former state House Speaker Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, it may be easy to forget that there's another major candidate seeking the seat - Democratic Rep. Kendrick B. Meek.
The Rubio-Crist race is one of the most closely watched in the country as Mr. Rubio has come from far behind quickly to pass Mr. Crist in the polls. Either can attract mobs of reporters, and they are often on national television.
Meanwhile, Mr. Meek, who has been campaigning for more than a year, is still unknown to about seven out of 10 Floridians. At recent stops in central Florida, he attracted crowds of about 30 people. No local media showed up. Yet Mr. Meek says that's fine with him. He doesn't mind letting the Republicans get all the attention as long as they keep criticizing each other.
"We're going to get our attention at the right time," Mr. Meek said after meeting with a group of Hispanic supporters outside a Dominican restaurant. "I don't see it as wasted ink as it relates to newspapers when the coverage is the dirty and nasty Republican primary. To the average voter that's out there trying to make ends meet, they're turned off by that."
Mr. Meek, 43, has a primary of his own - former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre is also running - but he is considered the clear front-runner. That may allow him to save much of his money for the general election and be in a position to define himself after Mr. Crist and Mr. Rubio finish focusing on each other.
"Whatever comes out of the Republican primary, if it's the governor or the former speaker, that candidate would have not only made statements, but taken positions that [have] very little to do with the future of Florida, but has a lot to do with ideology," Mr. Meek told supporters last weekend.
Mr. Meek is quietly building up grass-roots support and focusing on fundraising. He is trying to become the first person in Florida to qualify for the Senate ballot by petition, hoping to gather more than 112,000 names, along with contact information for possible donations and volunteers. He has until March 29 to file the petitions; otherwise, he can write a check for about $10,000 to get on the ballot.
Mr. Meek, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, served in the state Senate from 1998-2002, when he was elected to the Miami congressional seat previously held by his mother, Carrie Meek. He also led the effort to change the state constitution to limit school-class sizes.
In Congress, he served on the Armed Services Committee in his first three terms. He hopes his law-enforcement background and military expertise win over votes north of Interstate 4.
"Some people are shocked when they hear I was a state trooper. Some people are shocked that I was on the Armed Services Committee," said Mr. Meek, adding that voters shouldn't think he's too liberal just because he's from South Florida. "As people learn more about me, they say, 'Oh, OK.' "
In the meantime, the Crist-Rubio race just keeps getting nastier. David Beattie, a Democratic strategist based in Fernandina Beach, noted that Mr. Crist is doing whatever he can to make Mr. Rubio look like a crooked politician by pointing out personal charges on a party credit card and questioning how he spent money donated to a political committee and more.
And Mr. Rubio is constantly attacking Mr. Crist.
"Rubio is going to continue the tactic that Crist is a bad governor, he's a sellout, and he'll say anything to get elected," Mr. Beattie said. "These are personal attacks who will leave whoever emerges pretty bruised." The primary is Aug. 24.
Mr. Rubio recognizes that a brutal primary can hurt the Republican nominee and has said he wants the campaign to be about issues and policy and not personal attacks.
Mr. Crist did not respond to requests for comment for this article made through his campaign.
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