TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Former President Bill Clinton joined Democratic congressional candidate Gwen Graham at a voting rally on Sunday drawing a crowd of about 1,000 people.
Clinton urged the crowd at Florida A&M University not only to vote for Graham but to do so immediately, either by marching to the polls with local elected officials or by boarding buses waiting on campus.
“The political dysfunction in Washington is the single most important near-term threat to your prosperity,” he said. “We have seen people driving each other apart instead of reaching out to work together. …You know (Graham) will work with anybody with a good idea to help you have a better future.”
On Sunday, with early voting underway in Florida, Clinton crossed the state for three Democrats in down-to-the-wire races. He went from Palm Beach Gardens for U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy to Tallahassee for Graham, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, a Panama City Republican, in the one of the biggest congressional races in the country. The former president was then headed to Tampa for gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.
“In non-presidential elections, typically, lower-income people, minorities, the frail, adult population — people that have got more than they can say grace over just keeping body and soul together — don’t think it’s as important as when you vote for president,” Clinton said at FAMU. “But it is.”
He was joined at the podium by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Graham and her family, including her father, former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
“We know that she is going to be reasonable and level-headed and represent the average person instead of the special interests,” Nelson said.
The battle between Graham and Southerland is rated as a toss-up as the Nov. 4 election looms in little more than a week.
The sprawling, 14-county 2nd Congressional District runs the political gamut. Southerland is counting on his home county, Bay, a Republican stronghold, and rural counties in the conservative western part of the district. Graham, who lives in Tallahassee, should receive a boost in the Democratic stronghold of Leon County and other areas in the eastern part of the district.
Clinton has been campaigning for Democratic candidates as Election Day approaches — and is in demand where the more-unpopular President Barack Obama is not, including Arkansas, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Michigan and Kentucky.
“Any time you bring a former president into the state, it has a certain amount of star power,” said state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Panama City Republican and Southerland backer. “No one wants the current president to come.”
But while Clinton can still draw a crowd, his appearance also drew scorn in the polarized 2nd Congressional District.
Republican Party of Florida Chairwoman Leslie Dougher said Clinton’s visit had “no power at all” to affect the outcome. “The Democrats are getting desperate at this point to bring anybody,” she said.
“Gwen Graham just doesn’t get it,” Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough wrote in an email. “She can have the support of Barbra Streisand, Bill Maher, and all the Hollywood liberals and big time politicians she wants. They aren’t the ones who will determine this election.”
The past week also has seen U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, stumping for Southerland in Tallahassee. Both campaigns have brought in members of Congress to boost their credibility. And musical icon Jimmy Buffett will perform Wednesday at a rally for Graham.
“(Clinton’s appearance) is probably Gwen coming back and retaliating for the star power of Marco,” Patronis said.
Southerland, meanwhile, has linked Graham to Obama and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both highly unpopular figures in the deep-red Panhandle.
“People don’t want another rubber-stamp for Obama,” Dougher said. “They don’t want Graham getting elected, because she’s just another vote for Pelosi.”
Graham has made a point of saying she wouldn’t vote for Pelosi for House speaker.
Thelma Rohan, a longtime Republican organizer and recent candidate for the state House, said Clinton’s appearance at FAMU might be an “eye-opener” for undecided Bay County voters.
“There have been a few,” she said. “There have been more than I’ve been comfortable with.”
Rohan also said she was confident that Southerland’s campaign would turn out the Republican vote.
“They are working very hard,” Rohan said. “They have ratcheted things up within the past couple of weeks, luckily. … But if the polls are any indication, they’re going to really have to get it in gear.”
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.
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