Once solidly in GOP ranks, Fla. a battleground for Bush

Sunshine State fight diverts his resources from other key areas

September 10, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. - With George W. Bush flying in for hastily scheduled campaign stops tomorrow in Florida, this state's popular governor is scrambling his own plans so he can be there with him.

Not long ago, Florida's governor, who is also the Republican candidate's brother, could look forward to an orderly, even leisurely, presidential campaign effort in this state. With Florida regarded as reliably Republican in presidential elections, Gov. Jeb Bush had hoped to spend his time, perhaps much of it, stumping elsewhere around the country for his older brother.

Now, all that has changed. The race in Florida is tighter than Jeb Bush and almost everyone else had anticipated.

The governor says he's surprised that the contest in Florida is as competitive as it is.

"It's nip and tuck," Jeb Bush says. "I'd rather be up 10 [points] than whatever it is. It's pretty close right now."

Florida, with its 25 electoral votes - a virtual must-win for Bush - is very much up for grabs. And brother Jeb must devote his political energies to making sure the family doesn't suffer an embarrassing defeat in the Sunshine State.

Even if the Bush-Cheney ticket carries Florida - as even some Democrats still expect - the surprisingly close contest here could hurt their chances of winning the election.

That's because the Bush campaign, instead of challenging Gore in Democratic states such as California and New York or concentrating more on Midwest swing states, is urgently diverting its most precious resources - millions of dollars and the candidate's personal time - to defending its Florida turf.

No state illustrates the new dynamics of the presidential race better than Florida, which has unexpectedly become the biggest electoral battleground in the country.

A mix of factors, ranging from Al Gore's selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate to stumbles by Bush, has made the contest dead-even nationally and put this state in play.

Bush had once led by as many as 18 percentage points here, but one statewide poll taken after the Democratic convention showed Gore ahead.

Bush's slippage in the polls, and his unexpectedly erratic performance on the stump, are drawing criticism from increasingly nervous Republicans here, as elsewhere. Jeb Bush says he's been getting e-mails from Republican hard-liners, who blame what they see as the news media's slanted coverage for the shift in the presidential contest.

But a top Bush campaign official in central Florida, where close elections in this state are often decided, says Bush has lacked fire during recent campaign appearances, including a visit to Miami.

"He got a little too presidential too soon," says Mel Martinez, chairman of the Orange County Commission.

Martinez, one of the state's leading Cuban-American politicians, still expects Bush to carry Florida. But he uses the word "shocked" to describe his reaction to the tightness of the race here.

"The fact is that we sat on our hands too long," says Martinez, blaming it on overconfidence bred by the party's "feel-good convention" in Philadelphia.

Many of the same developments that have helped turned the contest into a dead heat nationally, including Gore's successful effort to invigorate his candidacy in recent weeks, are influencing the campaign here.

Seniors for Gore

As the nation's fourth-most-populous state, Florida mirrors the rest of the country in many ways. But it also has the highest proportion of residents older than 65, who are expected to cast two of every five votes statewide in November.

The over-65 age group is the only one in which Gore holds a clear lead over Bush, according to the latest national polls. The issues of Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs appear to be resonating with older swing voters in Florida, and perhaps elsewhere, to the Democrat's advantage.

Bill Justice, 73, of Pinellas Park, Fla., voted for Bush's father when he ran for president. This year, Gore will get his vote.

"I'm not in favor of Bush's idea of privatizing Social Security," says Justice, who drove a delivery truck until his retirement this year. "I feel it's going to cut out our [annual inflation adjustments in benefits]."

He knows that Bush has said his plan would not affect current Social Security recipients. But, Justice insists, "it's going to cut some of our benefits out. No matter what they say."

Justice lives with his wife, Evelyn, in the Golden Gate mobile home community for seniors outside St. Petersburg, where George W. Bush is to campaign tomorrow.

Taking a break after her morning walk with her husband inside an air-conditioned shopping mall, Mrs. Justice, who also voted for President Bush, said she seriously considered voting for his son, too. Now, she's leaning toward Gore.

She says she moved further in Gore's direction after Bush made a vulgar remark about a newspaper reporter at a recent campaign event - a remark that clashed with his pledge to restore respect to the presidency.

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