By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"I am one of those folks that is for regime change in Washington," he says as he pushes his glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "I wanted to come and see what the turnout here was like." If he approves, Dennis intends to offer his services to the Graham campaign. He has volunteered for campaigns before, but he has never worked on a salaried basis. He is currently unemployed. But he seems too shy to approach the old suits around the room. This dooms him from the start.
These are humbling times for the state's Democrats. The Jefferson-Jackson dinner, an annual event to celebrate the party's long populist tradition, was expected to raise $200,000 before expenses. Two days later, President Bush flew into Miami and Tampa and raised $3 million at two fundraising events. That one-day total exceeded Graham's entire war chest.
Dennis is one of the guppies swimming in the Diplomat, but, at last, a few sharks arrive. As Dennis enters Ballroom One and Renée fetches cocktails, a caravan of three vehicles -- a van, a limo, and an SUV -- pulls up in front of the resort. All of them are pitch-black. All of them have windows tinted to the maximum extent allowable by law. In one of them is Adele Graham, wife of Bob. The senator himself is off campaigning in Tennessee, where there's an early primary. Almost as if on cue, members of the press materialize around the entrance to the ballroom, their appearance giving them away -- lack of ties, sometimes even of sport coats, beards here and there, a somewhat academic bearing coupled with vacant stares. Minutes after arriving, Adele appears in the ballroom to the cheers of more than 100 souls. She already dresses the part of the first lady. Her red dress offers shades of Nancy Reagan. A large brown button, perhaps five inches in diameter, proclaims, "Graham for President." Dennis tries to approach her. Gene tries to approach her. Renée mingles with the other Stepford Wives, all of whose husbands jockey for position around Adele. Is she the shark or the chum?
Before this crowd of people, who suffered ignominious and illegal defeat in the last presidential election, Adele asks in a bright rallying tone, "Isn't it great to be a Florida Democrat?" Thunderous applause greets her question.
Through all of the speeches that follow, supporters such as Gene stand nearby in a close circle. Whispers issue forth here and there, and the occasional cell phone rings, often with the ring tone set to "You're a Grand Old Flag" or "Stars and Stripes Forever." But as Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne gets up to give his speech, Gene and Renée begin sliding toward the door.
"I can't imagine better people in the White House," Jenne begins. Gene and Renée have set down their cocktails. A murmur slips through the Stepfords near the bar. All aboard who's coming aboard. The main event is about to kick off, and the crowd starts moving up a floor to the Grand Ballroom. Upstairs, outside the Grand Ballroom, tuxedos have overtaken suits as the clothing du jour. Dennis is wandering, almost as if in a daze. He has been given the runaround. Don't call us, we'll call you. No time to talk.
The press is ushered into a side room, where the stars of this "Evening with the Stars" are taking questions. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stand at the front of the room. Though Cuomo is now out of the political arena, practicing law with Willkie Farr & Gallagher, a massive firm with 500 lawyers based in half a dozen cities around the world, and Pelosi is seen as a newcomer by many despite 15 years in the House, both say the same things about Democratic chances of winning 2004.
"Never again will Democrats go into a campaign without the ideas," Pelosi says. "Our position is closer to the public."
"We did very well on the issues with Clinton, and we did very well on the issues in 2000," Cuomo adds. "Gore won that campaign."
"Having the ideas." Remember those words. You'll hear them often in the next year or so. This is the agreed-upon talking point, to be struck no matter what the question. "There's no question that the Republicans have the advantage of money because they represent the special interests," Pelosi says. "We don't need that much, we just need enough. We will win on our ideas."
Outside the news conference room, men in tuxedos and women in gowns begin filing into the Grand Ballroom. Dennis stands right in front of the doors, as if expecting someone to stop and talk and perhaps hire him on the spot. No one does.
Gene takes a moment to step out on a balcony and have a Winston, with Renée nowhere to be seen. "What'd you think?" he asks as another fellow walks out to have a smoke. Opinions are thrown back and forth, and then Gene takes in the view off the balcony, a glitter in his dark eyes as he states, more for himself than anyone else, "We're gonna win." But the sea breeze rolling in off the Diplomat's manufactured beach makes his words difficult to hear over the crash of the rising tide.