Although a wonk, Davis can connect

Published: Sunday, October 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 30, 2006 at 11:16 p.m.
The Sun recently profiled Jim Davis' opponent, Charlie Crist.
JACKSONVILLE - Jim Davis couldn't meet individually with 130 community leaders and supporters who attended a campaign luncheon last week.
But before he gave his speech, the Tampa congressman visited with many of the diners. He sat down. He asked questions. He waited to hear their answers.
His approach impressed Arin Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at John E. Ford Elementary School in Jacksonville. Johnson, 28, who has been teaching two years, said she liked what Davis said about protecting voting rights and his concern about keeping teachers in their profession.
"I liked his passion about the situation," Johnson said. "I feel like he would work for me. I like that. I feel like he's interested in what affects me as an individual."
Davis' supporters say such interactions highlight the Democratic gubernatorial candidate's best asset: his sincerity and his effort to thoroughly understand issues.
Wayne Hogan, a trial lawyer who is supporting Davis, said that's what separates him from Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist, who has been praised for his affable campaigning style but who has also drawn questions about how detailed his knowledge is about the complex problems facing the state.
"He's a shoeshine and smile," Hogan said about Crist.
But Hogan said one of Davis' characteristics is his need to reach out to experts to better understand issues. He said that would happen while Davis was in Congress facing a vote on an issue like asbestos disease legislation.
"He would call and he'd say these issues are coming up and I really want to understand the entire picture so I can make a good decision," Hogan said. "He is a guy who is all about policy and how it impacts the lives of the regular person out there."
But that earnest wonkishness doesn't always make Davis that appealing on the campaign trail. While Crist seems to project a strong likeability factor in public appearances, Davis has been criticized for being too programmed and humorless.
Some observers say Davis has had difficulty projecting the familiarity and popularity he has established in his hometown of Tampa with the rest of the state.
"He has a really wonderful sense of humor and people just don't see that," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"He's very serious when he goes out to talk to formal groups," MacManus said. "But he's just your best friend and great next-door neighbor if you're with him in a casual setting. He's very light, funny and entertaining."
Other say Davis' methodical style may have hurt him already in this campaign. Some strategists say he was too slow to react when he came under attack for opposing a bill 16 years ago that would have compensated two black men who had been wrongly convicted of murder.
Davis initially refused to apologize for the vote and it became the subject of a series of negative ads and fliers during the Democratic primary. He said some of his advisers had urged him to quickly renounce the vote.
But Davis refused to do that until he could review the files from the 1990 committee meeting. He did that shortly after the Sept. 5 primary and that resulted in him admitting he had made a "mistake" in originally opposing the bill.
Former House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, who served with Davis in the state House, said Davis' political skills have been underestimated before.
"And I believe that's because he's very good at connecting directly with voters," Wallace said. "He shows a lot of empathy for people and he generates respect in people."
Wallace said he questioned Davis' chances when he first announced he was going to run for Congress in 1996. Davis was entering a crowded field at the same time he had helped pass a House rule that prevented members from raising money during their annual session.
Yet, Davis prevailed in that race, Wallace said, because "people watch him and listen to him and they recognize he's a very intelligent person who thinks things through and looks for the right answers and doesn't operate on a level of simplicity."
One of Davis' key supporters and advisers in the gubernatorial campaign has been former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who said Davis' sincere, low-key style is in line with other successful Democratic candidates in statewide races.
"They're quiet. They're thoughtful. They have a sense of Florida and where they think it ought to go," Graham said.
Former state Rep. Scott Clemons, D-Panama City, said Davis' political style will enable him to develop a consensus on complex issues when he is governor. Clemons said he saw Davis do that while he was a leader in the state House.
"Jim is not prone to overreacting on issues," Clemons said. "He's very steady. He takes time to understand an issue before he speaks out. In this day and age that's a rare quality among elected officials."
MacManus, the USF political science professor, said voter perception of Davis' and Crist's personalities will be a factor in the Nov. 7 general election.
"Personality is important," she said. "But people have to feel it's genuine and that you have a plan."

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