Joe Henderson: Being front-runner now just makes Philip Levine top target – Florida Politics

Joe Henderson: Being front-runner now just makes Philip Levine top target

The primaries are about 2 ½ months away, and so much can happen before voters choose their candidates for Florida’s next Governor that being the front-runner now only means you’re the main target.

With that in mind, Democrat Philip Levine, who is leading polls mostly (I believe) because he has been the only candidate from his party to put a lot of ads on TV, might want to go easy on the whole “I’m the front-runner” idea.

Ask Adam Putnam how much it means to be ahead before most people have even begun to pay serious attention to the elections. Get real.

But that didn’t stop Levine from a groan-inducing moment during Saturday’s Democratic debate.

When his three opponents on the stage — Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum and Chris King — put Levine on the defensive by bringing up his 2010 contribution of $2,400 to Republican Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate campaign.

That prompted this ill-advised quip from Levine: “Boy, it’s sure fun to be the front-runner.”

It was not well-received by the audience at Pinellas Park High School, and it just reminded everyone that Levine has a reputation as thin-skinned.

That brings up two points:

First, it reminded people of his gaffe in the first Democratic debate when the man who has proposed giving $10,000 raises to Florida teachers — estimated cost: $1.8 billion — couldn’t answer a direct question about how much the state already budgets for education.

That was quite the conversation-starter in the aftermath of that debate, and the last thing Levine should have wanted was for people to be talking about this line after the second go-round.

Second, it opened the question of whether Levine was prepared for the grilling a poll-leader should expect.

If this line was a rehearsed response in anticipation of being knocked around, he should have ditched that idea long before he got to the stage.

If it was spontaneous, that doesn’t bode well either. What would he be like sitting in the Governor’s chair when the grill gets a lot hotter than what he faced Saturday night?

To be fair, he did come back with a nod toward party unity in his closing statement, noting, “I hope every single one of you votes for me, but I know one thing. If any of the four of us become Governor, our state will be in way better shape than it is today.”

Levine has reliably progressive ideas and the money to get his message out. And it’s not like his opponents don’t have their own obstacles to overcome.

Graham has been attacked from the left for not being progressive enough, although her declaration during Saturday’s debate that if elected she will sign an executive order banning the sale of military-style assault weapons was a bold gambit.  

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has had to defend his vote as a city commissioner in 2005 to join with other cities to build a $1.5 billion coal-fired plant.

Businessman Chris King is struggling to find traction in a crowded field.

And Jeff Green, a late entry to the race, decided to skip Saturday’s debate. Interesting strategy, eh?

But even though this is his first statewide campaign, Levine surely must know that leading the polls — and he does, by a wide margin — only means his rivals will come at him with more pointed attacks. It doesn’t get easier from now through the August primary, and after that it gets ferocious.

Get used to it.

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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