CLEARWATER — After qualifying for the District 13 congressional race early Monday, Alex Sink was shaking hands with staffers and talking with patients at UPARC, a facility for developmentally disabled adults and children.
TV cameras and campaign staffers filled the room as patients played ping pong and Wii Bowling with caretakers.
Monday was the first of what will likely be many stops along the short campaign trail for Sink, who seeks the congressional seat held for decades by Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, who died last month. The 30-hour period for candidates to qualify for the race started at 8 a.m. Monday and ends at noon Tuesday.
“We’ve got a very short period of time to get our message out, and that’s what I’m going to be doing,” said Sink, the former Democratic state chief financial officer and gubernatorial candidate.
When word spread that Sink might run for the seat, the decks quickly cleared in the Democratic party. Without a primary contest, Sink can focus on the special election in March.
For Republicans, though, party leaders have yet to coalesce around either of the two most well-known candidates officially in the race: Washington lobbyist and former Young aide David Jolly, and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who has better name recognition in Pinellas County. Both qualified Monday.
Peters, the former South Pasadena mayor, has scheduled a press conference at 10 a.m. Tuesday to make a “major announcement.” A Jan. 14 primary election will decide who will face the Democrat’s candidate - presumably Sink - in March.
Having less than two months to campaign for a primary election and then having to do it all again two months later might seem daunting, but a primary is not without its advantages.
“On the positive side, assuming there’s real competition, they’ll get a lot of free publicity for their candidates,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett. “If the race stays relatively positive and both candidates talk about issues and don’t do too many personal attacks and mudslinging, a primary could actually be a good thing.”
A primary could help the either candidate glean the kind of name recognition needed to challenge a household name such as Sink — so long as they go light on the attacks, Jewett said.
“If it’s a real knock-down drag-out with a lot of negative campaigning, obviously that can tarnish the winner.”
Taking a few on the chin in a primary might toughen a candidate ahead of what could be a fierce battle for the coveted seat, though.
“As long as the primary produces a decent candidate ... it sort of provides a training ground for the candidate,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the political blog Sabato’s Crystal Ball.“They’ve been tested.”
The primary can also put the general election on more Republicans’ radars earlier on than Democrats, possibly boosting GOP voter turnout in March, Jewett said. Unless, that is, Sink starts sending out campaign mailers early.
At the same time, though, candidates will have to put their messages out during the holidays, considering the primary is barely two weeks after Christmas.
“That’s about the worst time to have a special election,” said Florida International University political science professor Kevin Hill.
It’s a time of year when few people are not only distracted but also not likely to be receptive to attack ads, he said.
“You definitely wouldn’t want to run negative ads on television during the holidays.”
Fundraising may also be an issue for the primary winner.
“They only have a very limited amounted of time to restock their coffers before the general election,” Jewett said.
Given that the District 13 race is likely to be an intensely watched contest ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, he said. The state and national party money that will likely pour into his or her general election campaign may negate that challenge, though.