Relax -- We've Got Ideas

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...
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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.

"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.

It was once said of James Carville that he would set Lee Atwater's heart on fire and then refuse to piss down his throat to save his life. The FDP seems lacking in that kind of passion.

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.

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