MIAMI (AP) _ Kendrick Meek had other stops to make in north Florida, but he didn't want to leave the sunny stadium parking lot where his supporters grilled hot dogs and hamburgers before a Jacksonville Jaguars game.
"It's like when I'm fishing, I want to catch one more,'' Meek said before stepping back into the stream of football fans heading for the gate.
It's how he started his campaign for the U.S. Senate. One by one, voter by voter, one personal introduction and handshake at a time.
Instead of writing a check, Meek himself courted support in grocery store parking lots and became the first Florida Senate candidate ever to qualify for the ballot by petition, gathering more than 150,000 signatures statewide.
Now in the last weeks of a bruising campaign, trailing badly in the polls, the Democrat is telling voters: I'm still here. This isn't over. Each vote matters.
Things looked better when he declared his candidacy in January 2009 in the front yard of his modest suburban Miami home. At the time, Meek had a lock on the Democratic nomination while Gov. Charlie Crist appeared to be the likely Republican nominee.
Barack Obama was about to become the first black U.S. president, and Meek's mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, herself a pioneer in Florida politics, mused that her son could become the state's first black senator.
More than a year and a half of campaigning later, Meek battled his way out of a primary against a big-spending billionaire only to struggle to gain momentum in a three-way race. He's chasing Democratic voters along with Crist, now an independent, while the Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, enjoys a tea party boost in the polls.
He has denied rumors that he's dropping out of the race to support Crist.
Though Rubio and other Republicans nationwide have made gains by criticizing the president, Meek hasn't shied away from supporting Obama. During the first two general election debates, Meek defended his vote for the health care overhaul and said the $787 billion stimulus kept the country out of a depression.
On the campaign trail, Meek, 44, reminds voters that he's faced difficult challenges before and won with middle class values.
He just needs "people of goodwill'' to send him to the Senate to fight offshore drilling and the privatization of Social Security, he tells voters.
"People of goodwill are willing to vote for the person they feel will do the best job. As long as that's the case, then there are not any issues like, 'Oh, he's from South Florida,' or, 'He's an African-American,' or, 'He's a Democrat, I can't vote for him,''' Meek says. `"he people of goodwill who look at the person that's offering themselves will always come through on Election Day and vote their conscience. That's who we're looking for. That's the voter that I believe voted for me in the primary.''
Supporters say Meek's middle-class focus developed through years of hard work and public service.
One of three children raised in Miami's Liberty City by a single mother, he was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade. His childhood dream was to become a police officer.
He earned a degree in criminal justice from Florida A&M, where he played football. He worked his way through school, including summer stints handling baggage as a skycap at Miami International Airport.
As a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, Meek volunteered for late shifts patrolling for drunk drivers in southern Miami-Dade County. He became the FHP's first black captain when he became a security aide to then-Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay.
Meek never received a single complaint, which was highly unusual for an officer who arrested such a high number of impaired drivers, said John Iadanza, Meek's former FHP supervisor in Miami-Dade County.
"He treated everybody extremely fair, the public and his co-workers, and he always had an infectious smile,'' Iadanza said.
In 1994, Meek was elected to the state House; four years later he was elected to the state Senate. He made a name for himself by tangling with then-Gov. Jeb Bush over class-size limits and a plan to end affirmative action in state university admissions and state contracts.
He won his mother's congressional seat in 2002, the same year he led the effort to put class-size limits in the state constitution while Bush campaigned against it.
Meek caught the attention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who asked him to lead the "30-Something Working Group," young representatives that find creative ways to deliver policy messages to younger voters.
He faced little opposition in his re-election bids, and in running for the Senate is essentially giving up a House seat he probably could have held as long as he wanted.
"If he was the person who took his thumb out, licked the tip of it and tried to see which way the wind was blowing, I might have questioned him then. But Kendrick is not the average-type politician,'' said state Sen. Tony Hill, who as a state representative joined Meek in an overnight sit-in protest in Bush's office until the governor agreed to meet with them about the affirmative action plan.
"When I see him out here doing this, he did the same in 2002 for the class size amendment. He went against all the odds,'' said Hill, D-Jacksonville. “And look what happened. It's working, teachers are teaching and kids are learning. That's the type of person Kendrick is.''