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Can 'decent guy' strategy overcome Grayson attacks?

"Win, lose, I don't really care," says Dan Webster. "I will stick with no personal attacks. I can have a clear conscience at the end whether I win or lose."

That is what Webster told me this week after Alan Grayson dubbed him " Taliban Dan."

I can see the Republicans in black-ops, plotting their takeover of the House, gagging in disbelief. Lose? Don't really care?

What will it take to get Webster to fight, if not this?

The "Taliban Dan" ad makes Webster look like a grainy, scary fanatic telling wives they must "submit to me … submit to me."

Some sleazy editing left out the word "don't."

Webster was saying the opposite of what the ad implied. For a hard-core Christian conservative — and Webster certainly is all of that — he sounded downright enlightened.

Any other candidate would be hitting back hard.

But New Testament Dan is turning the other cheek.

"I am not making this personal," he says. "I am just not. I am sticking with issues. I think there is a hunger for issues."

Just like there is hunger for broccoli in middle-school cafeterias. Everybody is talking about Grayson's attack ads, and nobody is talking about Webster's issues ad.

Webster has his dukes up, fighting by Marquess of Queensberry rules. And the other guy is punching him in the crotch and gnawing on his ear.

Republicans have had Grayson in their sights ever since he unveiled his "Die quickly" spoof on the Republican health-care plan. And now they have a candidate who won't pull the trigger.

One party insider accused Webster of "political malpractice."

Here is how the campaign is being handicapped. If it is about issues, Webster wins. If it is about Grayson, Webster wins.

The only way Grayson wins is if the campaign is about Webster.

And right now, the campaign is about Webster.

Before "Taliban Dan," there was Stairway-to-Nowhere Dan and Draft-Dodger Dan — another sleazy offering from Grayson because Webster actually did report for duty. But true or not, they are having the intended effect. Grayson is defining Webster and putting him on the defensive.

"That draft stuff was 40 years ago," Webster says. "I cobbled together the full story, but it took me a long time."

That is a "long time" he didn't spend on his own campaign.

Back when Webster was flip-flopping on entering the race, I questioned whether he had the stomach for taking on Grayson. The only way you do that, I said, is if you need to be in Congress more than you need to breathe.

Because that is how badly Grayson wants to stay there.

A congressman is most vulnerable when he is up for his first re-election. If Grayson wins, particularly if he leaves Webster's head on a stake as a stark warning to the next would-be challenger, he can look forward to a long career in Washington.

You do not beat someone like Grayson by putting ethical conditions on how you win.

The meek may inherit the Earth, but they're not going to inherit Florida's 8th Congressional District.

"He is such a decent guy," says Toni Jennings, who was president of the Florida Senate while Webster was speaker of the House. "It is not in his nature … to speak ill of somebody else. He won't do it. He's a much better Christian than I am."

Many expect the national party to unload on Grayson with attack ads.

"That's what they do," Webster says with disdain. "That's the only ads they do. I don't need them."

Again, not what I want to hear if I'm plotting in Karl Rove's basement. The party's coffers aren't overflowing, and buying TV time in Central Florida is expensive. If Webster isn't up to this fight, then maybe limited resources would be better spent in other races.

But I wouldn't write off Webster quite yet. He says a backlash against Grayson has brought in a surge of contributions. I've talked to Democrats so fed up with Grayson that they are considering voting for Webster.

Maybe letting Grayson be Grayson will be a winning strategy after all.

Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@orlandosentinel.com.

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