Alan Grayson tries to show Democrats how to take on the Tea Party.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 23 2010 12:59 PM

Mutual Irritation Society

Alan Grayson tries to show Democrats how to take on the Tea Party.

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Huckabee arrives and tries to make the same point, calling Webster a "chef in the kitchen" instead of "a person who is just serving someone else's food." His audience seems to understand the metaphor and applauds. Buttoned-down Webster, argues Huckabee, is the obvious antidote to Grayson. "You don't just have an opportunity here," says Huckabee. "I would say you have an obligation to replace the person you have."

That's how Webster's rivals feel, too. Not even O'Donoghue, who was the front-runner in the GOP primary until Webster jumped in belatedly, wants to say anything bad about him. "Dan and I are friends," he says. "At least, I thought we were friends!" He stops himself short. "I'm just kidding. We're friends. I don't see the fight in Dan, but I love and respect him."

Grayson minimizes the threat he might face from Webster. Liberal donors, he points out, have responded to him by helping him build the biggest war chest of any freshman Democrat. He has $1.3 million stowed away; Webster has about $100,000. Let Webster play moderate, because Grayson has mapped out a way to portray him as an out-of-touch cipher.

"Whoever wins is going to be an extreme right-winger," says Grayson. "Because they're all extreme right-wingers. They couldn't find a normal person to run against me. Every one of these candidates is so far to the right it's as if they're going to fall off the face of the earth."

Few other Democrats in Grayson's position talk like this. Some conversations with voters in the district demonstrate why. In 2008, they voted for Grayson and the Obama-Biden ticket, narrowly, because of disgust with the Bush administration's failures. It was tough to find a job then. It's tougher now. That lends more credibility to the critiques of Republicans like Webster, who promise to kick-start the economy by cutting taxes on businesses and slashing entitlement spending.

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It's a critique that appeals even to voters like Jeff Evans, 49, who was laid off from his trucking job in December 2009. He was receiving unemployment benefits until a Republican filibuster stopped them this summer, leaving him without a revenue stream for weeks. But even though Grayson and his fellow Democrats eventually restored his benefits, Evans isn't sure he will support Grayson. It would do him more good, he said, and allow him to keep his dignity, if they "let the small businesses create more jobs."

Grayson knows how popular that argument is. The solution: Argue that Republicans have no credibility to make it. He pivots off of one of Webster's ideas, a proposal to cut the budget to what it was in 2007. Webster suggests that Floridians were perfectly well off when the government spent at that lower level. Grayson prefers to ask whether voters realize that a cut like that would mean lower Social Security payments.

"It's a stupid idea," says Grayson. "Nobody has a time machine, OK? The world has changed a little bit since 2007. For one thing, there're a lot of more people out of work." Soon he's on a roll, explaining how $12 trillion of capital disappeared in the "Bush implosion" of 2008. That's who voters need to blame, he says. Why aren't they as angry as he is?

"In 18 months, two centuries of work, the collective effort of millions of people, all gone," says Grayson of the financial crisis. "So now the Republicans want to go back to 2007? It's a little bit late for that."

When he's done talking to me, Grayson talks with more volunteers. He poses for more photos with them. About a dozen wear T-shirts that say "Grayson. Truth." Everywhere they go, they're presented with evidence that voters blame their party for the economic mess, and here he is, the Democrat who's defending what his party's trying to do.

"He irritates the Republicans," says one volunteer, special education teacher Audrey Ais. "They need to be irritated! They spend plenty of time irritating us."

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