Byline: DAVID DECAMP
The question hit Jim Davis right off the bat: What's the difference between him and his gubernatorial rival Rod Smith?
Speaking at a klieg-lit town hall meeting in Jacksonville last week, Davis refused to talk about his opponent in the Democratic primary in September.
But Republicans were another story.
A U.S. House member from Tampa, Davis had long since rolled up his sleeves and launched into a blistering critique of the party that controls the state and federal governments.
"We're going to invest in our children," Davis told a crowd of 50 people. "We're going to start holding the politicians in Tallahassee accountable for our children's future."
There might be no time like now for Davis.
Republicans' low approval ratings nationally could affect Florida. As they vie for the Democratic nomination, Davis and Smith, a state senator from Alachua, are trying to win over party moderates and some Republicans. That generally has been their party's best formula in statewide elections
But half of Democrats remain undecided about Smith or Davis for the primary, according to a poll released last week by Quinnipiac University. Davis, who led 27 percent to Smith's 17 percent, already has visited all 67 counties.
But his recent 10-stop "Keeping Florida's Promise" tour was another chance for him to introduce himself, particularly in North Florida.
"I'm still going to find out their differences with the other one," said undecided voter Jolna Thomas, 62, a retired teacher from St. Johns County.
Davis has lined up support from traditional Democrats, like U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville. But the host committee for an April 10 fundraiser in Jacksonville included retired CSX executive Pete Carpenter, who raised at least $100,000 for President Bush's 2000 election.
Davis also has the support of former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who made a political career appealing to South Florida progressives and North Florida moderates.
"I think that Davis, to me, represents a voice that speaks to Democrats and Republicans," said Duval County School Board member Tommy Hazouri, who co-chairs Davis's local campaign with state Rep. Audrey Gibson.
While Davis is more aggressively criticizing Republicans, Smith is banking on attracting them. Supporters say his streak of North Florida conservatism can appeal beyond Democratic voters. For example, the National Rifle Association gave Smith an A on gun policies in his last election in 2002, but Davis received an F.
While Smith disagreed that Davis has more aggressively criticized Republicans, his criticism has been less heated, and he noted the next governor will have to deal with a Republican-led Legislature .
His legislative work, such as dealing with Republicans on medical malpractice reform, also shows he can collaborate across party lines and understands Tallahassee politics, said supporter John Parker, president of the North Florida Building Trades Council in Jacksonville. …