It's only June, but Florida's three-way U.S. Senate contest is already shaping up as a race to remember. It will have Republican Marco Rubio, the young and formerly unsung conservative who is now widely viewed as the Barack Obama of the Tea Party movement. It will have Governor Charlie Crist, the former Republican shoo-in who fled the GOP to run as an independent after it became clear that Rubio was cleaning his clock. And it will have ... a Democrat.
That's likely to be Congressman Kendrick Meek, although he still faces an expensive primary against a billionaire carpetbagger. He's actually glad about that, because it might bring the forgotten candidate some much-needed attention. "If nothing else, it will remind people there's a Democrat in this race," Meek told me at a restaurant where he had been scheduled to meet with local journalists from the Caribbean community, only two of whom showed up.
That's the kind of thing you'd expect a Democrat to say when he's buried in third place, consistently polling below 20%. But it also happens to be true. Though Meek may look hopeless today, it's still strange to watch the pundits count out a Democrat running against divided Republican opposition in a Democratic-leaning state; an Obama supporter running against two Obama foes in a state that supported Obama; and a consistent offshore-drilling opponent running against a drill-baby-drill guy and a petroleum flip-flopper in a state with lovely white-sand beaches that are now threatened by the spill in the Gulf.
I'm a believer in simple political fundamentals. That's why I went to see Rubio a year ago even though he was barely registering in the polls; I didn't see how a moderate like Crist could fake his way through a closed primary of Republican activists if his opponent were a reasonably compelling conservative. Clearly, Rubio was. And that's why I spent Tuesday with Meek. Rubio and Crist are gifted politicians, but I don't understand why a Florida Democrat with a mainstream voting record and solid fundraising would get crushed by a Tea Party ideologue and an all-over-the-map opportunist unless he were a truly awful candidate. Especially when the Florida GOP is embroiled in a fairly spectacular scandal. As is another Crist pal.
Well, Meek didn't seem truly awful. He seemed like a genial guy, a husky 43-year-old former state trooper from inner-city Miami who might have been intimidating if not for his baby face and easy smile. Forest Whitaker would play him in a movie. He represents a poor district and speaks poignantly about constituents "dealing with the muddiness of life." He's not well known, but he's working hard to build an organization he's the first-ever statewide candidate to qualify for the ballot by petition and he defies some antiquated stereotypes about black urban politicians. For instance, he's an avid sportsman, and once impressed the good ole boys with his crack shooting at a North Florida dove hunt. He's clearly comfortable in his political skin; he talked with pride about leading a statewide battle for smaller class sizes, fighting President Bush over Social Security privatization and supporting Obama's health care reform. He's basically a reliable Obama Democrat with a few Florida twists, like lockstep support for Israel and NASA, as well as some unorthodox votes to rein in the national debt.
That said, he's no Obama. Meek inherited his seat from his mom, Carrie Meek, a sharecropper's daughter who taught school before becoming the first African American elected to Congress in Florida since Reconstruction; he's neither a natural politician nor a policy wonk. (His mother, now a lobbyist, also roped him into his first scandal of the campaign.) At an informational meeting at a condo complex here, he gave jargony, meandering and sometimes bewildering answers to softball questions about Medicare, earmarks and unemployment aid; in an interview, he mangled the name of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. An aide later pointed out that he's dyslexic, which struck me as the kind of defense a Senate candidate shouldn't need.
But his Sotomayor mispronunciation is probably less important than his support for her nomination, which was opposed by Rubio and Crist or as Meek calls them, Republican Right and Republican Lite. Against a more polished Rand Paul and a more likable Arlen Specter, Meek won't necessarily need to be Obama. "When Air Force One lands in Florida in the fall, it's going to be landing for the Democratic nominee," Meek says. "All the Democratic campaign committees and Democratic activists are going to be working for the Democratic nominee."