TAMPA -- As Florida Democrats glimpse rays of hope for a long-sought political comeback, their race for party chairman is becoming competitive and heated.
Veteran party activist Alan Clendenin of Tampa appears to be the front-runner in the race, say party insiders.
But prominent Democratic fundraiser and progressive activist Allison Tant of Tallahassee is running an active campaign with the backing of some of the party's biggest names.
And no one can be certain of the status of the race, which is being conducted among a small group of party officials and elected officeholders using a complex voting system.
The race comes at a crucial moment for Florida Democrats.
For more than a decade, they've languished in near-irrelevance in Florida government, losing four straight governor's races, holding few statewide offices and small minorities in the Legislature and congressional delegation.
But the Nov. 6 election was their first substantial win in a decade, and Democrats think they can defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014, retrieving some of the power they've steadily lost since the mid-1990s.
"All eyes are focused on the Capitol and the governor's office," said Democratic Party activist and University of North Florida political scientist Wayne Bailey. "The stars and planets are aligning in a way that the chairman's race could make a difference."
The question to many Democrats is how they can replicate the effort set up by President Barack Obama's campaign in Florida, whose Nov. 6 win surprised some political junkies and buoyed other Democrats, apparently stemming from an effective grass-roots network and voter turnout machine.
Clendenin promises a restructuring of the state party, its consultants and vendors. He is running under the slogan, "Rebrand, Rebuild, Recruit."
He emphasizes his long history working within the party structure: offices in the local, state and national governing boards and activism in a major constituency group, organized labor, as an officer of the air traffic controller's union.
"I represent changing the party organization and infrastructure to reflect the success of Organizing for America," the Obama campaign, he said.
"My opponent represents maintaining the same organization and infrastructure that existed in 2010. The difference in 2012 was having a grass-roots organization in place."
Tant emphasizes her years of fundraising and organizing for progressive causes and Democratic candidates, from Obama and Sen. Bill Nelson to the local level, starting in the 1980s in Tampa, where she worked for the Holland & Knight law firm.
Nelson and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, national Democratic Party chair, recruited Tant to run and have been making calls for her to members of the state party executive committee, who will vote in the election.
Tant is credited with raising more than $330,000 for Obama's 2012 effort but said her involvement extends beyond culling big contributions from affluent donors. She said her fundraising grew out of her earlier grass-roots organizing and depended heavily on networks of supporters drawing in small contributions.
"I've walked neighborhoods, put together networks of volunteers" starting as a Young Democrat in Tampa and phone-banking for former state Sen. Pat Frank in the 1980s, she said. "I'm a very hands-on person."
But fundraising is a job a party chairman can't shirk, she added.
"You have to have the money to do the grass roots. You can't have the technology we saw from Organizing for America without money to buy those things."
Clendenin contends Tant represents "Tallahassee insiders," and she does move in influential circles in the capital.
She's married to prominent Tallahassee lawyer Barry Richard, known for working for political clients on both sides of the aisle, and had a long career as a lawyer-lobbyist herself until she quit to take care of a disabled child.
The campaign has become negative, with supporters of each candidate hurling charges at the other.
Tant entered the race late, in November, after Clendenin had been running for months. Clendenin backers say the big-name Democrats who recruited her have turned the party machinery over to work for her.
The chairman's election, which should have been held sometime from late December to mid-January under party rules, was delayed until Jan. 26 to allow Nelson and Wasserman Schultz time to recruit and campaign for a new candidate, said Hillsborough County Chairman Chris Mitchell, who backs Clendenin.
Mitchell said he got a call supporting Tant from the state party executive director, Scott Arceneaux, and considered it inappropriate for a party staff member to be taking sides in the race.
Tant said she wasn't aware of such activity, and a party spokeswoman couldn't be reached for comment during the holidays this week.
Clendenin backers, including Democratic bloggers, have bashed Tant because she made a handful of contributions to Republicans in the past and lobbied for a company associated with the infamous voter purge list promulgated by former Secretary of State Katherine Harris prior to the 2000 election.
Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political strategist working for Tant, noted that it's common for lobbyists to donate to politicians of both parties and said Tant's work had nothing to do with the purge list.
Of her contributions to Republicans, he said, "That was a few hundred dollars years ago compared to tens of thousands she's raised for Democrats." One happened because of a shared interest in disabled children, he said.
Tant said in the last few election cycles, she's personally contributed $38,000 to Democrats.
Tant backers, meanwhile, claim Clendenin took political donations from the sugar industry, which isn't popular with Democrats, and that as chairman of the state party's platform committee, he prevented inclusion of a same-sex marriage equality plank.
Clendenin said the sugar contribution actually consisted of a contribution from a political committee supported by the sugar industry to another political committee he ran, and that the money was used to support Democrats.
Sugar industry companies and officials routinely give to both parties, he added.
He said the marriage equality charge is false and that he supports a platform plank. He produced an email from committee member Ira Raab of Palm Beach County saying Raab made a motion for such a plank at a July meeting, but it was defeated by what Raab called a fair committee vote.
On Jan. 26, representatives from the 67 counties will cast weighted votes in the race, based on the number of Democrats and Democratic votes in each county. Democratic elected officials also have weighted votes.
The state's three biggest Democratic counties -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- could be decisive.
Wasserman Schultz, recently designated by Obama to remain as Democratic National Committee chair, is highly influential in South Florida, particularly Broward County, and has worked the phones there hard, South Florida Democrats say.
Tant also has backing from Scott Randolph of Orlando, front-runner in the race until he left because he was elected Orange County tax collector, and his wife, Susannah Randolph, a prominent activist in Florida progressive causes including the "Pink Slip Rick" organization.
But Clendenin has been endorsed by important party caucuses, including Hispanics, blacks and environmentalists, likely a reflection of his long party history.
Tant acknowledged she needs to become better known among the voting party representatives and said she's been visiting South Florida regularly.
"We're Democrats -- we like to express our opinions vehemently," said Broward party chairman Mitch Ceasar of the attacks in the race. "But after the election we'll get back together. Rick Scott is a great unifier." ___