Hoping it's not a political mirage in Fla., Clinton buoyed by signs of his success

October 08, 1992|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Staff Writer

OCALA, Fla. -- By the time Bill Clinton reached the rodeo arena here the other night he was clearly giddy from his all-day bus tour through central Florida and energized by several thousand partisans chanting "We want Bill" and "Clinton-Gore" on a soft, cool evening.

He rewarded them with a speech that ran almost an hour and dealt at length with every issue of the presidential campaign, primary and general election, except the price of parsnips.

Mr. Clinton's euphoria was understandable. The response he drew in Daytona and then along the route through Orlando, Leesburg and Ocala went far beyond what any Democratic presidential candidate has experienced in this conservative section of a state that has not voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The signs of success were all around. Although the most recent published polls show the race in Florida essentially even, Mr. Clinton was told that private surveys made for him and for other Democratic candidates have found him leading President Bush by 6 to 10 points -- a finding reflected in the rush of local Democratic candidates to identify with him.

Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr., doing the introductions at Orlando, recalled how the locals had tried to keep their distance from Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988. "But you see us all now fighting to get up on the platform," he told a cheering crowd of several thousand in Loch Haven Park.

As another politician who had joined the caravan, Mayor Sandy Freeman of Tampa, put it in a stop at Lake-Sumter Community College in Leesburg, "It's a lot different this year." There is, of course, the strong possibility that this is a political mirage. Democrats have imagined themselves in the game in Florida in other years, only to learn that they weren't. Mr. Mondale abandoned the state entirely shortly before Labor Day, returning only once for a fund-raiser in Miami. Mr. Dukakis set up an organization but then shut it down a month before the election.

But the most solid evidence the contest is real is that Mr. Bush had just returned for another full day in a state whose 25 electoral votes are essential to his base and should have been stowed away long ago. Mr. Bush, too, had found receptive partisan audiences along his rainy-day route from Clearwater through Miami, Fort Lauderdale and, finally, Orlando. But the fact that he felt obliged to campaign here sent a strong signal of uneasiness.

But in a sense, it almost doesn't matter if the Democrats carry Florida. If Mr. Clinton can run competitively in a state that Mr. Bush carried with 61 percent of the vote last time, the Democrat is home free Nov. 3.

Mr. Clinton clearly is being carried along by a set of circumstances quite different than those in play here in other years. Last year, long before he emerged as the Democratic front-runner, he won the endorsement of highly respected Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and those of several influential Democratic liberals in South Florida. As Mr. Clinton said of Mr. MacKay at Ocala, "He came out for me even when my momma didn't think I could get elected."

Mr. Clinton's success in a state party straw poll in November and then in the Super Tuesday primary gave his campaign in Florida impetus and organization. But the real key has been the reaction against the president as the economy has gone sour -- now to the point that the state's unemployment rate is 8.9 percent -- and as attention has focused on national issues of special interest to the state, including health care and the environment.

Put another way, what is happening in Florida, a leading %J Republican said, is that the state has learned it is not so immune to the national issues that its traditional conservatism in presidential politics is controlling.

"We can't just blah-blah about Cubans and the commies this year," he said privately.

Just how much commitment Mr. Clinton's strategists will make to Florida depends, of course, on what the poll numbers show over the next few weeks. At this point, there is no agreement to spend heavily on television in the state although there will be some advertising. But what is clear is that the ball is in Mr. Bush's court -- and the operative question is whether he can close the gap for Mr. Clinton, if there is one, or open a gap for himself if there is not.

In his weekend visit here, Mr. Bush was conspicuously aggressive. Although he had adopted a posture that the issue of Mr. Clinton's draft record was not his lack of military service but his truthfulness in replying to questions about it, the president abandoned that posture at Fort Lauderdale, telling an audience: "By the way, I do believe that serving in uniform is a good criterion for being commander-in-chief of the armed forces."

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