SOUTH FLORIDA -- Embattled Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera and his Democratic challenger Joe Garcia are honing in on the Florida Keys as their race for Congress reaches its final weeks.
Both men appeared at the Key Largo Federation of Homeowners Association forum last week, and both were scheduled to appear at the Hometown! PAC in Key West Monday, followed by the Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday.
They also plan to be at a Marathon Chamber of Commerce forum on Oct. 22.
In addition, Garcia spent the weekend of Oct. 6-7 campaigning from the Upper Keys to Key West, while Rivera appeared Oct. 8 on US1 Radio with Bill Becker. Rivera also has a turtle release public appearance scheduled for Saturday at Higgs Beach in Key West.
The candidates are making their presence felt in the Keys despite the fact that it makes up just 15 percent of the district's voters. The remaining 85 percent of the district is in southwest Miami-Dade County.
The winner of the race will replace U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who has been the Keys' representative in Congress since the last redistricting in 2002.
The presence of Rivera and Garcia, whose race has drawn national attention due to alleged scandals plaguing Rivera, should add spice to any forum they attend.
Rivera is reportedly facing a federal investigation into whether he secretly steered tens of thousands of dollars toward the campaign of novice politician Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran against Garcia in the Democratic primary. Sternad is reportedly cooperating with the feds.
Rivera is also the reported target of an IRS probe related to a $500,000 payment he quietly received from the Flagler dog track in Miami in 2008, while serving as a member of the Florida House of Representatives.
The congressman denies the allegations. He also denies that he's even the subject of federal investigations, saying repeatedly on the campaign trail that he is instead the target of a Miami Herald witch hunt.
"Voters understand the Miami press invites sensationalism," Rivera told the Free Press last week.
The allegations have dogged Rivera. A mid-September Democratic poll showed Garcia ahead 50 to 41 percent. Perhaps more significantly, a Republican poll taken in late September showed Garcia leading by a 43 to 33 margin, with the margin 13 percent in the Keys.
Last week, the political newspaper Roll Call ranked Rivera the fifth most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"There is near universal agreement that the first six members aren't returning to Congress," the newspaper proclaimed in reference to its list.
But as his increased presence in the Keys exemplifies, Rivera is showing no signs of giving up.
"Going to all these forums is a reflection of my philosophy," he told the Free Press Monday, before explaining that he currently represents portions of Naples' Collier County in addition to segments of the Miami area.
"Every voter in every part of the district matters equally to me," he said. "I have experience putting in time and effort traveling long distances representing voters."
Though Rivera said his trips down here do not figure into a broader election strategy, the Keys could in fact prove to be fertile ground for candidates in search of undecided voters over the race's last three weeks.
That's because both Rivera and Garcia have not previously been involved in electoral politics in the Keys. Rivera is a current member of Miami's congressional delegation and a former member of Miami's Florida House delegation, while Garcia has twice before run for a Miami-based seat in Congress.
In the Keys, however, the two began this year's campaign relatively unknown according to polls, Garcia campaign spokesman Abel Iraola said.
"It definitely was an opportunity to introduce yourself from a clean slate," he said.
Garcia said Monday that Keys political forums also make enticing campaign stops because they typically draw better attendance than those in southwest Miami-Dade.
"There's a spirit of sort of retail, one-to-one politics that you don't get other places," he said.
Plus, the Keys aren't a bad place to go to work.
"You got to campaign somewhere. Why not do it where it's beautiful?" Garcia said.