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Shriver may want to expand his kitchen cabinet beyond Ratner. This time the stakes are much higher than merely Miami Beach, and it's not only local Democrats who are looking for a savior. Florida remains a swing state, and if the history of George W. Bush is any guide, a linchpin for the presidential battle of 2008. To that end, its gubernatorial field is already crowded with no less than five contenders who've begun amassing funds and securing backers: Betty Castor, who narrowly lost her 2004 U.S. Senate race to Mel Martinez; Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, son of the late governor; Tampa Rep. Jim Davis; Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox; and Gainesville State Rep. Rod Smith.
Yet none of these names has inspired much excitement. A December poll conducted by the Strategic Vision consulting firm showed the last three hopefuls being beaten handily by all the likely Republican contenders. Even "undecided" polled stronger numbers than the Democrats. That sentiment is shared by Shriver. "Some people fall in love with the idea of going to Tallahassee, the idea of being governor," he says. "I get it, I understand why they're intrigued by all that. But power isn't sexy to me. I've seen too many people in that position already."
Bud Chiles, he notes, came to him looking for a job two years ago, armed with elaborate expansion plans for Best Buddies. "It didn't work for me," he recalls tersely. And in Betty Castor, who's phoned him in hopes of support, he sees a candidate unable to forge a deep connection with voters or articulate a compelling message. We would seem to be back at square one.
"It's a wide-open race, there is no heir apparent," concludes Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes governors' races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report newsletter in Washington, D.C. But while she also remains less than wowed with the Democrats' current lineup, Shriver's possible entrance doesn't cause her to adjust her "toss-up" verdict regarding November 2006.
"The Kennedy name doesn't have quite the cachet it used to," Duffy argues. "Look at 2002 when Kathleen Kennedy Townsend [Bobby Kennedy's daughter] -- who was lieutenant governor -- got beat in the Maryland gubernatorial race and handed the Republicans the governorship for the first time there in almost three decades. Also in that cycle, Mark Shriver [Anthony's older brother] ran for Congress and got beat in the primary."
Anthony Shriver's Miami backers will be surprised, Duffy continues, when their boy begins campaigning around the state, "particularly when the South Beach version of Camelot goes to the Panhandle. Go talk to Alex Penelas about that."
Still, had Duffy caught Shriver in action at his most recent Best Buddies gala, an "Arabian Nights" fundraiser set on Star Island amid billowing tents, shimmying belly dancers, and loping camels, she might be less skeptical. Acting as an auctioneer of donated gift items and swanky vacation packages, Shriver expertly worked the crowd, cracking jokes, cheerfully goading well-known local executives to up their bids, and eventually pushing that night's take over $700,000.
It's easy to imagine those same glad-handing skills transferring to the political arena, especially when one of your best friends is communications mogul Philip Levine (Onboard Media), who loaned his $12 million sprawling property for that night's event. In the wake of personally giving more than $500,000 to the Democrats' 2000 presidential effort, Levine has quickly become not only a personal confidant of Bill Clinton, but one of Florida's top fundraisers for the party. And Shriver freely admits that Levine is dying to spring into action on his behalf: "He wants it, he'd love to do it."
Shriver's extended family, at least, is already on board. "I'm pumping up a Shriver card," Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy gushes to Kulchur. "I started at the state level, but he has the experience and the base of political support to jump in at the national level. People are just drawn to him."
Back in Shriver's office, his mood still hovers between coyness and introspection.
Have you been receiving any intriguing phone calls from Democratic Party consultants?
"Yeah, I hear this and that," Shriver replies with a shrug, trailing off. With obvious frustration in his voice, he starts again: "If you're on the sidelines, you look so great, you're the guy. But once you get in the game, you get beat up like everybody else. Attitudes change. People who were on your team drop right off it." He leans back in his chair and frowns, exhaling softly. "I was with my cousin Willie [Kennedy Smith] yesterday, and he just got beat up with this whole rape thing.... You have to let it go in one ear and out the other. You can't let it drag you down."
Media scrutiny has certainly been a feature of the Kennedys' lives, but it's unclear just what makes Shriver himself so wary. After all, unlike his many cousins, his own past has been relatively free of scandal. The only headline-grabbing incident came in January 1993, when Shriver literally crashed a party at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. Racing his Jeep Cherokee around the grounds and through its hedges, he sent an array of Trump's guests -- from notorious Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi to cosmetics queen Estée Lauder -- running for cover. "Yes, there is damage to my property," Trump told reporters, but he refused to press charges. "The Kennedys have had so much trouble in their lives, I just don't want to be the reason for causing them any more."