WAUSAU, Fla. - Republican Congressman Steve Southerland knows how to handle a possum.
With a shout of "Come on, big guy, let's get going," Southerland grabbed a marsupial by the tail Saturday and held it high over his head to the delight of hundreds gathered for the annual Possum Festival in this tiny Panhandle town. A few minutes earlier, his Democratic opponent, Gwen Graham, bid $800 for the opportunity to do the same. She was joined by her father, former governor and ex-Sen. Bob Graham.
But missing were Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist. And Attorney General Pam Bondi also chose not to go. In fact, the only statewide candidate who attended the event was Democrat George Sheldon, who hopes to unseat Bondi.
"I don't understand it," said Bob Graham. "They made a mistake. They should have come to Wausau."
What is usually a must-attend event for statewide candidates was notably lacking of them this year, perhaps because candidates who now raise tens of millions of dollars focus more on television ads than making personal contact. But not attending is a missed opportunity, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor who drove more than 350 miles for the festival.
"A lot of media is here, free attention, good photos to show people you have connection with the grassroots and rural vote which is always a higher turnout than urban," MacManus said. "At a time when people are already overly saturated with TV ads, why not show you're connected with every day people, because that's what people in Florida are really searching for right now."
The festival is a celebration of opossums with a parade, a possum king and queen who are chosen for their lack of beauty in a redneck sort of way, and an auction, where possums captured locally are taken from a cage and politicians bid for the privilege of getting on stage and dangling them by their tails. Skilled politicians know the trick of shaking the mammals so they don't rise up and bite them. Oh, and the less fortunate possums end up in a slow cooker and are served with collard greens.
Southerland and Graham both said the festival, which is in the district they're fighting for, was not to be missed.
"I want to meet everybody in this district that I can meet," said Gwen Graham, standing in the 91-degree sunshine. "The retail part of this is the best part. Seeing people, hugging people. You can see how sweaty I get, because I just love it. You feel the connection."
It's probably something she learned from her dad. When asked how many festivals he's attended, the former senator said, "17,181."
Sheldon, who was deputy attorney general under Bob Butterworth, said he has attended the festival several times over the years.
"Butterworth came all the time," said Sheldon, who remembers seeing former Gov. Jeb Bush here. "Regrettably campaigns are relegated to 30 second spots as opposed to this direct retail politics. It's where you stay in touch with the real world."
And yes, he has eaten a plate of possum. But not Saturday.
"I tried it in 2000. It was a rite of passage. Once you do it, you don't have to do it again," Sheldon said with a laugh.
Scott was at a field office opening in Hialeah. Crist didn't have any public events.
Southerland said this, like the Worm Gruntin' Festival in Sopchoppy in April, is a required event.
"In this day in time when so many elected officials are disconnected, I think it's important as a visual. They need to know that you care about them," Southerland said. "It's a must stop."
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