HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Democratic Senate nominee Kendrick Meek will need to pull off another big comeback if he is to defeat Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist in November's general election.
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Meek had trailed billionaire investor Jeff Greene early in the polls leading up to Tuesday's primary, but he rallied in the closing weeks to win easily. Meek defeated Greene 57 percent to 31 percent, with two minor candidates splitting the remainder.
Meek begins his race against Rubio and Crist far behind in both the polls and in money. Conservative voters are solidly behind Rubio, the former House speaker who is a darling of the tea party movement. And Crist, who abandoned the Republican Party, is trying to peel away Democratic votes by seeking support from teachers, worker's unions and others who traditionally back Democrats.
Meek pointed out during his victory speech Tuesday night that he is the only real Democrat in the race, a point directed at Crist's lifelong record as a Republican.
"I am running against two conservative candidates for the United States Senate who have similar records," Meek said. "Anything that comes out of this primary, it shows that this campaign has the strength, and integrity, the will and desire to run against the odds."
Meek, a 43-year-old former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, said the experience of winning a primary is something that will help build support for November.
"We've been working hard for a very long time and this is the results of a grass-roots campaign," Meek said.
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When Greene suddenly entered the Democratic primary in April, Meek compared his race against Greene to the biblical story of David and Goliath. Greene began blanketing the state with television ads, spending millions of his own money. Meek said he rallied because Floridians recognized his 19 months of campaigning for the job and voted for someone who understands the needs of the middle class.
"Mr. Greene wasn't a pushover," Meek said. "He was running more commercials than Geico, Burger King and McDonald's put together. He came hard and he was a businessman that had some success in life, but I feel Floridians know that the people of good will spoke tonight and they will speak again in November."
The race was called so early, that Meek was still getting dressed in his hotel suite, leaving his closest supporters waiting several minutes to congratulate him.
"We're happy!" his wife Leslie said. "Let me go get the candidate."
After a few minutes, Meek emerged to applause.
"It shows Floridians that even when we run into a wall, we find a way to run get around it, or over it, or through it," Meek said. "We didn't give up when there were stormy clouds overhead of $26 million plus."
Meek hugged state Sen. Tony Hill, who in 2000 joined him on an overnight protest in then-Gov. Jeb Bush's office complex over a plan to strip affirmative action protections. The two then recited an inspirational saying they've shared often through the campaign.
"Remember the whys," Hill said.
"And the how will take care of itself," Meek responded.
Later, at the victory party, a beaming Meek acknowledged his status as the underdog in the general election, saying he would never be the Goliath.
"I'm gonna still be comfortable playing the David," Meek said.
Only about 15 people were at Greene's election night party in West Palm Beach.
During his concession speech, Greene said he will support Meek any way he can, including contributing the maximum legal amount to his campaign. He said the two planned to meet for lunch soon.
"Whatever issues I felt Kendrick Meek had, he's a Democrat and he will support the agenda of the president. I'm looking forward to him being in the Senate," said Greene, who said he has no future political plans. "If we let Rubio and Crist and their kind back into power, our economy will be threatened once again."
Greene also expressed no regrets about spending millions of his own money on the campaign.
"I made a decision that I felt I wasn't happy with what was going on in Washington and the direction our country was heading, and I decided that I would commit whatever it took to get out my message. We spent the money and we got the message out. Unfortunately the people of Florida chose someone else, but I don't regret it at all," Greene said.
For more than a year, most people assumed Meek would be the nominee. Then in April, on the last day to qualify for the ballot, Greene announced he was running and said he would spend whatever it takes to win. He quickly passed Meek in the polls after blasting out television ads around the state.
But as voters began paying closer attention to the race, Meek's poll numbers began to rise and in the last couple weeks most polls showed him ahead.
As the music played and people still celebrated at Meek's party two hours after polls closed, Greene's room was empty and quiet as workers began taking down campaign posters.
"I'm down and depressed," said Ira Furman, a retiree from Deerfield Beach. "I'm going to vote for Meek, but I'm down because I really feel that Jeff Greene could have created jobs."
Jennifer Kay reported from West Palm Beach