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Candidates shake hands for votes

A six-county Whistle Stop tour through the Panhandle on Saturday showcased a number of lesser know Republican candidates fighting for attention amid the Marco Rubio-Charlie Crist showdown and gubernatorial hopeful Rick Scott's big-money campaign.

With sweat soaking through shirts and campaign fliers doubling as hand fans, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, an agriculture commissioner candidate, and Holly Benson, a former state lawmaker running for attorney general, showed that retail politicking still holds a place in a state known for its media-market campaigns.

Observations from the campaign trail:

--The details: The tour began at 9 a.m. central time in Chipley before stopping in Bonifay, DeFuniak Springs, Ft. Walton Beach, Gulf Breeze and finally ending in Pensacola at 6 p.m. The crowds varied from the 25 people under a park pavilion in Gulf Breeze to the 200 awaiting the statewide and local candidates in Ft. Walton. The oppressive heat, with temperatures topping 100 degrees, kept enthusiasm to a minimum. In fact, in DeFuniak Springs, a tense auction for a two-layer patriotic cake drew more participant attention than most candidates.

--Hey, don’t forget about me: Putnam spent a good bit of his stump speech explaining to voters the position he seeks, listing all the job duties of the agriculture commissioner in a hey-this-matters fashion. “I’m a citrus grower and cattle rancher,” he says, before citing stats about how agriculture in the state’s No. 2 industry and no longer resembles a Norman Rockwell tableau. After more than a year campaigning behind the scenes, he said the voters are starting to get interested.

--The best ride: Speaking of Putnam, he knows how to ride in style. His campaign rented a 40-foot RV to transport campaign staffers, his wife, Melissa, and his four children from Tallahassee to Pensacola and back. The Brady bunch feel translated well among the family-values voters as the kids passed out stickers and balloons. His campaign manager, Trey McCarley, took the wheel (his first time in an RV) and Putnam had to get out to help guide the tank through tight spots more than once.

--Politics is all national?: Despite the down-ballot races, the bulk of the questions posed to Putnam and Benson involved national issues such as the federal health care law and the oil spill crisis. With the high-level disgust at Washington, voters are asking litmus test questions in narrowing their choices.

--Unlike her opponent Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who spent the day mingling young Republicans in South Florida, Benson spoke to the faithful. She represented Pensacola in the Florida House and appeared comfortable among her kin. She even deftly defused a woman who interrupted her speech with a screed against the federal health care law, by talking about her support for the state’s lawsuit against President Barack Obama and her time as head of the state’s health care agency. (UPDATED)

--The also-rans: Did you know Rubio isn’t the only Republican running for U.S. Senate and Scott and Bill McCollum aren’t the only GOP governor candidates? On the trail, voters met William Escoffery III, the “Christian conservative” candidate who wants to “put God back in America, a U.S. Senate candidate and William Crawford, a Brooksville business owner who drew such little interest he threatened to do a “two-minute comedy bit” instead of a speech.