By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Rising above the other beachside hotels of Hollywood's Ocean Avenue like some glittering green-and-white Tower of Babel, the Westin Diplomat spares no expense. As people troll for low-cost parking on A1A (valet service at the hotel's front entrance is $11 an hour), the staff of the Diplomat is trying to make everything perfect for the 4 p.m. fete for Bob Graham in the Diplomat Convention Center's Ballroom One. Everything has to be perfect. Perfect and patriotic. Even the chips laid out in silver bowls on tables throughout the room are red, white, and blue.
Although the Jefferson-Jackson Gala, set to begin two hours after the Graham event, is technically a Florida Democratic Party gathering, it makes sense that, of all the Democratic candidates for president, Graham would be the one to have his own pre-gala cocktail party. Florida is Graham Country -- or at least, Democratic Florida is. Florida Democratic bigwigs (such as they are) have nearly all hopped on the Graham bandwagon. Sen. Bill Nelson; Congresswoman Corrine Brown; Congressmen Alan Boyd, Jim Davis, Peter Deutsch, Alcee Hastings, and Kendrick Meek; and a swath of state legislators have joined the Graham for President Florida Committee. And so, apparently, has half the FDP.
At the end of the long escalator ride to Ballroom One stands Jim Booth, a volunteer for the John Kerry campaign. Calm and determined while floating in a sea of Grahamness, Booth attempts to hand out Kerry stickers to the folks on their way to the ballroom. Most pass quickly by, Graham stickers already emblazoned upon their sport coats.
"We've been getting a great response," he claims, letting an unguarded smile slip past the professional veneer of a gray suit and thin-rimmed glasses. "I think they [Kerry and Graham] make the best ticket together." It goes without saying which man Booth feels is the vice-presidential candidate.
Booth's statement traces to rumors that Graham is only in this to get a VP slot with one of the other campaigns. Of course, the vast majority of the people riding up the escalator would, for the record, disagree. That certainly goes for the power couple who step past Booth without a second glance. He is the Pinellas County Steering Chair for the Graham Campaign. She is the Wife of the Pinellas County Steering Chair for the Graham Campaign. They are Gene and Renée Smith.
Everything about the Smiths matches. Black suits -- his neatly pressed, hers fashionable. Perfectly coifed hair -- his balding and black, hers brown and bobbed. Expressions -- coolly blasé. They walk slowly toward the three tables outside Ballroom One, where volunteers hand out Graham stickers and buttons. They give their names to a young lady in a black dress who sits at one of the tables, and she in turn writes them down on "My Name Is..." stickers. Renée places hers above her left breast, he above his right, and the two step inside. By now, about 60 people have found their way the room.
"I mingle at these things like it's a cocktail party," Renée says. One is hard-pressed to call the event by any other name. A bar in the corner features overpriced drinks. In typical Diplomat fashion, they even charge for water.
While Renée treats this cocktail party as a cocktail party, Gene wanders the room touting the wonders of the Graham campaign. But with the press almost entirely absent, he has nobody to pitch to. Keith Clayborne, publisher and editor of the Broward Times, arrives, along with his cameraman. Both are in suits. Clayborne has no need for "My Name Is..." stickers. A large, navy-blue rectangular button on his lapel proclaims his name in gold letters. But the editor is gone as quickly as he arrived, leaving Gene to pass on story ideas to only a single reporter.
"Bob Graham will win Florida," he avers. "He can challenge President Bush where Bush is seen as strong." Gene refers to Graham's position on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, though there is more to it than that. Graham is a primary sponsor of the USA Patriot Act and the primary mover behind Counterintelligence 21, credentials that would be a Republican's wet dream. The Patriot Act gave broad discretionary rights to the government to pry into citizens' lives, while Counterintelligence 21 made sure citizens didn't pry into government, Freedom of Information Act be damned. But that hasn't stopped most of the FDP, and even a few Republicans, from backing the candidate. "We've got every major Democrat in the state behind him," Gene says. "It'd be nice if we had Jeb, but I think he'd have some explaining to do."
Indeed. If the governor backed Graham, Karl Rove would fly down personally, his carry-on bag filled with thumb screws and hot pincers. No mercy, even for siblings. This is presidential politics. The stakes couldn't be higher; everyone knows this, and everyone plays his role.
Renée is one of the little people who keeps the machine working. "I iron his [Gene's] shirts," Renée says with complete seriousness.
Every campaign needs its little cogs and sprockets. As Renée discusses Housework as Political Preparedness, a cog brushes past the Kerry campaigners at the top of the escalator. A rumpled white shirt tucked into tan slacks and a tie loosely wrapped beneath his collar, Rich Dennis has the look of incipient dishevelment. A scruffy goatee and a little yellow stain on his shirt make it seem as if he has a disaffection for mirrors. He carries a black leather bag filled with paper, pens, and other assorted office supplies. He is looking for work.