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Florida race could haunt Democrats in 2012

By Roland S. Martin, CNN Political Analyst
  • Republican side of Florida race for U.S. Senate has gotten most of the attention
  • But CNN political analyst Roland S. Martin says the race is crucial for Democrats
  • Rep. Kendrick Meek faces a primary challenge from Jeff Greene
  • Martin: President Obama likely will need strong support in Florida to win re-election

Editor's note: Roland S. Martin, a CNN political analyst, is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith," and the new book, "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One cable network and host of a Sunday morning news show.

(CNN) -- A lot of attention this week was focused on female candidates finishing first in Senate and gubernatorial primaries in California, Arkansas, Nevada and South Carolina. Their successes were huge -- involving such feats as fighting back against salacious rumors of affairs and charges of buying an election, fending off a huge battle against big labor and riding the Tea Party Express to victory.

Yet with all of the drama in those races, Florida always seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, and could end up being the most interesting race, with long-term ramifications.

With Gov. Charlie Crist abandoning his bid for the Republican nomination and running as an independent because of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio drubbing him in the polls, all of the attention has been focused on those two.

Oh, yeah, there is a Democrat running in this heavily Democrat-leaning state, and Rep. Kendrick Meek is feverishly trying to remind folks of that. He has been on the campaign trail for months and is running third in the polls behind Crist and Rubio.

President Obama won the state in 2008, and Democrats outdistance Republicans by some 700,000 voters. Despite Rubio's rise, he is largely a darling of the Tea Party, and its supporters have been the arch-enemy of the left as they are driving GOP candidates further to the right.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Democrats would be locked and loaded, sending White House surrogates to Florida; targeting the GOP opponents with money from labor and teacher unions; and trying to rebuild the coalition that put Obama in the White House, namely young, minority and women voters.

Yet this has been slow to develop, and if I were a Republican, I would be salivating at the Democrats lacking a sense of urgency. The massive grass-roots efforts that ushered Obama into office have seemingly gone back to sleep and are in desperate need of being reawakened.

And if I were a Democrat, I would be saying that taking this seat from the GOP column may help keep the Senate in the control of Democrats.

If you look at Obama's falling poll numbers, as well as the influence of the Tea Party and a surging Republican Party, it's abundantly clear the electoral map of 2012 will not look like 2008. I would bet money today that Obama doesn't win Indiana, North Carolina and possibly Virginia, meaning he will have to win re-election by scoring victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and yes, Florida.

By keeping the momentum going in Florida, Democrats are going to have to invest the time and resources, and the first act would be to drive the Meek campaign to victory.

He has some issues that Democrats have acknowledged. As a member of the House, he doesn't have major name recognition across the state, and he is going to have to spend lots of times knocking on doors if he is to become the junior senator from Florida and the only African-American in the U.S. Senate next year. One plus is that he has the enthusiastic support of former President Clinton.

But Florida is also notoriously expensive, and that means his coffers will have to grow exponentially. Meek has raised $5.5 million thus far. Yet that's likely what he'll have to spend just in the final two weeks of the campaign.

That's if he is able to fend off the challenge of billionaire Jeff Greene, who recently jumped into the race, and is expected to spend millions of his own money to grab the nomination.

Meek expects to beat Greene, but that means having to spend time and money on him, and not on Rubio or Crist. And for a candidate who needs to introduce himself to a wide voter base, every minute and dollar is precious. Greene has already dropped $5 million and will likely inundate voters with TV and radio ads.

And if Greene wins, don't think for a second that black voter turnout won't be severely depressed in November, and a novice political watcher knows Democrats can't win without their most important and loyal constituency.

Furthermore, the Democratic primary is in August, leaving the candidates two months to focus on the general election. Rubio can stay centered on Crist; now that Crist is running as an independent, he can court voters from both sides, and Meek has to target Crist and Rubio while keeping a watchful eye on Greene so as not to lose the primary.

If Meek has to spend most of his cash against Greene, he will be at a severe disadvantage with two months to go, and that's a short window to raise upward of $15 million to compete effectively.

Already, this is turning into a strange race. The state's teachers union co-endorsed Crist and Meek, which was a major surprise to political watchers, especially considering it was Meek who changed the state constitution mandating smaller class sizes.

There are six months to go before Election Day, and a lot can happen between now and November. But it is certain that Republicans would love nothing more to put another chink in the armor of Obama by beating Meek. And Democrats would hate losing a statewide seat in a state they theoretically dominate.

But a good ball coach will tell you that no game is won on paper, but on the field.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.