A strenuous sham in Florida

November 04, 1996|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. -- -- Hillary Rodham Clinton turned up here last week at one of her favorite political venues -- Century Village, a community of some 12,000 elderly Americans, more than 9,000 of whom are registered Democrats.

As candidate Bill Clinton's wife, the first lady came here four years ago just before election day and then again, with the president, as part of their kickoff for their health-care reform campaign in 1993. She is so popular here the community's medical center has been named for her.

There were all the trappings of big-league politics -- 2,500 people waving Clinton-Gore signs and chanting ''four more years'' for a half-dozen television camera crews.

Within 24 hours of Hillary Clinton's visit, Bob Dole was stumping with George Bush in Tampa and Miami, and Vice President Gore was speaking in Melbourne, paving the way for Mr. Clinton himself to make two late stops in the state on the final weekend of the campaign. A heavy schedule of television advertising is being broadcast by both sides.

This is something new. For the last 20 years -- since Southerner Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 -- Democrats have given Florida no more than perfunctory attention. In 1984, for example, the total budget for the Walter Mondale campaign in this huge state was $50,000, just enough for a small office in Tampa and some appearances by Mondale surrogates on TV programs.

This time, however, President Clinton is not just running competitively but appears to be comfortably ahead. The latest Florida Poll published by the Miami Herald shows him leading Mr. Dole by 47 to 39 percent. The survey found the two close to even among men voters but gave Mr. Clinton a lead of more than 20 percent among women.

The issue that has made the difference is Medicare -- or, more accurately, the perception the Democrats have fostered with Newt Gingrich's help that the Republicans would wreck the program upon which voters like these at Century Village depend. As one resident told a visitor, ''That Gingrich, he's poison here, just poison.''

Considering how rocky things are for Senator Dole, however, Florida counts as a state worth at least some of his attention in the campaign's final few days. The numbers are not so bad for the Republican nominee that he has no realistic hope of winning the 25 electoral votes at stake.

Facts of political life

Yet, when the whole political equation is closely examined, it is clear this is a sham campaign in the sense that it has no potential for changing the basic facts of political life for the challenger. Even if Senator Dole were to recover and win here, chances are it would do no more than lessen the political embarrassment he is facing.

The problem is that Mr. Dole already has ceded too many states with too many electoral votes to have any realistic chance of winning. He has essentially abandoned the entire Northeast, almost all of the Upper Midwest and several states in the Far West. The states in which he is not even competitive will cast about 230 electoral votes, meaning that only about 310 are in play, from which he would need 270 to win.

Moreover, it is something of a stretch to say, for example, that the 54 California votes are in play. Mr. Dole is not just trying to draw to an inside straight, as the favored cliche has it, he is trying to draw two cards to fill that straight. Fat chance.

The Republican nominee is going through the motions, nonetheless. He is making what has become the traditional mad dash around the country asking for eleventh-hour support. The premise remains that personal stumping is effective, although the poll numbers in California suggest that Mr. Dole loses rather than gains support with more intense campaigning.

This presidential campaign has been effectively over for several weeks. The national polls all continue to show Senator Dole stuck with 35 to 39 percent of the electorate, while President Clinton's share bounces between 49 and 55 percent. So the campaigning in Florida may be interesting to watch, but it is essentially meaningless.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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