ORLANDO — Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, the leading Democratic candidate for Florida’s open Senate seat, listened quietly last week to tales of woe: a college student who nearly ended up homeless because her mother had lost her job; a laid-off mother who paid for health care with credit cards; an electrician struggling to get unemployment benefits.
“Somehow in this campaign, I need to give you all some voice,” Meek said.
He leaned forward at a cafe here, a 6-foot-4 hulk of a man with a boyish smile, and added that his Republican competitors — Gov. Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the Florida House — were too concerned with ideology, not action. And though he has served as a congressman from South Florida since 2002, Meek promised to help reform Washington, where now, he said, “politics trumps public policy.”
This is the core argument of a campaign that most Floridians have yet to see or hear. Meek, 43, has been a long-shot candidate from the start, but lately he has struggled to gain traction because of all the action on the Republican side.
Rubio versus Crist was initially expected to be a walk for the moderate, cheerful governor. Instead, it has become a grudge match over the future of the Republican Party. Six months before the Aug. 24 primary, each week brings another round of jabs under a national spotlight.
A Quinnipiac poll last month showed the race essentially tied among registered Republicans, after Rubio — a Cuban-American protege of former Gov. Jeb Bush and a favorite of the conservative Tea Party set — had been down by 31 points in June when he joined the race.
The polls, of course, may not be destiny. In a state dominated by expensive news media markets, Rubio is still behind in fundraising, with $3.37 million collected, according to state records, compared with $4.96 million for Meek and $8.99 million for Crist.
The challenge for Meek is that he is generally unknown outside Miami. According to the January poll by Quinnipiac), 72 percent of all those surveyed, and 60 percent of Democrats, said they did not know enough about him to form an opinion.
Many of his supporters say this can be solved by Election Day. They praise Meek as a methodical campaigner who is building his organization and visiting small gatherings all over the state.
The contrast between the parties’ candidates looked particularly stark last week.
While Crist hosted a meeting about the state’s space industry, and Rubio spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, earning a standing ovation for defending free enterprise, Meek spent the day on the road from Orlando to the Florida Panhandle, taking questions from voters struggling to pay their bills.
Former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, who hired Meek as his driver when Meek was a state trooper in the 1990s, said that at some point, the retail politicking would pay off.