Optimistic Florida Democrats gather

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Florida Democrats gather in Orlando this weekend feeling flush with cash, staring at a buffet of open legislative seats and unified behind their strongest gubernatorial candidate since 1998.

For the first time, all four state Cabinet seats are coming open at once. More than two-dozen Republican state legislative seats won't have incumbents, thanks to term limits and lawmakers seeking higher office. And the Florida Democratic Party is showing signs it can compete in fundraising.Still, not everything is rosy.

"Six months ago the assumption was that the national climate would help the Democrats in 2010," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "Today, that is not the case."

The Democrats have fielded two capable candidates for attorney general -- state Sens. Dan Geller of Miami Beach and Dave Aaronberg of Greenacres -- but have yet to find someone willing to run to replace Alex Sink as chief financial officer. Sink, who is running for governor, Saturday will headline the party's annual convention at the Disney Beach and Yacht Club.

Democrats see the governor's race as a must-win, to prove last year wasn't a fluke and return the party to the Governor's Mansion for the first time since the Jeb Bush conservative takeover in 1998.

"There's nothing more important in terms of long-term party building than having a Democratic governor. It's an undisputed political-science fact," said Steve Schale, the strategist who managed Obama's Florida campaign.

But the party is also eyeing gains in the Legislature, where it's been out of power since the mid-1990s. In the state House and Senate, 28 Republicans will be tossed out by term-limits or are running for another job, compared with just six Democrats.

"Our goal is to win as many as we can," said Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat overseeing House campaigns in 2010.

The bleak state economy could help make that sell to voters, Saunders said.

House Democrats voted in lock-step against last spring's $66.5 billion budget plan, which contained more than $2 billion in new and increased taxes and fees on such things as fishing, vehicle registrations, court filings and cigarettes.

Saunders' Senate counterpart, Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, has more tempered expectations: competing for two or three Republican Senate seats in the Palm Beach County, Gainesville and Tampa areas that are Democrat-majority by registration or close to it.

"State Senate seats are very expensive," Rich said. "It's important for us to remain focused and targeted."

Democrats have banked $4.9 million this year, or about half the state GOP's $10 million. Last quarter, Republican Party fundraising hit $4 million, compared with $2.5 million for the Democrats.

Republicans are confident the GOP will widen its traditional fundraising edge and that donors will rally around Bill McCollum, who's still the only GOP gubernatorial candidate.

"The truth is Barack Obama was a unique phenomenon," said GOP lobbyist and fundraiser Brian Ballard, "and I don't see him on the ballot this time."

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at 850-222-5564 or adeslatte@orlandosentinel.com.

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