Jeb Bush must be careful in battle with Reno

September 07, 2001

The following editorial appeared this week in the Miami Herald.

AS THEY SAY on Saturday Night Live, it's Reno time.

Unfortunately, there might not be many laughs in a drawn-out gubernatorial battle in Florida pitting the former attorney general against Jeb Bush. It might, in fact, get ugly.

What it shouldn't be is dull, despite the fact that neither candidate is an electrifying presence.

Janet Reno brings to the race a prickly independence, a formidable intellect and a truckload of baggage from the Clinton administration. Not all that baggage will hurt her at the polls. Ms. Reno has a curious relish for taking flak - and a calm talent for defending herself when she believes she's right.

However, she's up against a fairly popular incumbent who has surprised lots of people with his savvy and polish. If the election were held today, Mr. Bush would win without much trouble.

But fortunes can change radically in 14 months. Should Ms. Reno capture the Democratic nomination, as presumed, here's how the governor could blow his lead:

1. Mention Elian Gonzalez as often as possible.

This issue is guaranteed to win Ms. Reno more votes than she'll lose. Practically everywhere but Miami there remains strong public support for the Justice Department raid that reunited the little boy with his father in Cuba. Even in Miami-Dade, the backlash from exile voters was so negligible that President Clinton's hand-picked candidate, Al Gore, won the county last November. Each time Mr. Bush brings up Elian's name, the Democrats ought to send him a thank-you note.

2. Mention Waco as often as possible. This, too, plays right into one of Ms. Reno's strong suits. Anyone who's heard her explain what happened at the Branch Davidian compound knows how persuasive she can be. Just ask the senators who tried to hang her eight years ago.

Ms. Reno inherited Waco. When she took office as attorney general, David Koresh and his band of heavily armed zealots already had been surrounded for weeks. Four U.S. agents and five cult members already had died in a fierce gun battle during a bungled raid.

It was Ms. Reno who approved the tear-gas siege that ended with the deaths of 86 cult members, including women and children. Some perished in that horrible fire, and others died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

"The buck stops with me," Ms. Reno said afterward - a stoic snip of video that Democrats should be eager to replay, if Republicans give them an opening.

3. Mention Bill Clinton as often as possible.

This one will be hard for Mr. Bush to resist, but he ought to be careful. Millions of Floridians think Mr. Clinton was a pretty good president - he won the state in 1996, and only a few thousand mismarked ballots prevented his vice president from winning last fall.

Jeb already is in hot water with many blacks and seniors who believe his brother stole the White House with recount shenanigans. Attacking Ms. Reno for her Clinton ties is sure to rub salt in the wound and could boost turnout in Democratic strongholds.

Ironically, Ms. Reno was Mr. Clinton's least favorite Cabinet member because she wouldn't be a team player. If the ex-president shows up here to stump for his ex-attorney general, it will be an act of party loyalty, not friendship.

The tone of the campaign will depend on whether Jeb Bush realizes he can win without invoking Elian, Waco or Slick Willie. Right-wing Clinton-haters won't be voting for Ms. Reno anyway; Mr. Bush needs to lock up the middle-of-the-road moderates.

That means getting a leash on the droolers and pimps in his own party who now control the legislature. The governor has demonstrated a knack for quietly smothering some truly awful bills before the stink gets downwind - a skill that will prove crucial during the campaign.

Keeping the GOP rhetoric civil and restrained will be another challenge for Mr. Bush, but it's essential. In Ms. Reno, he'd face an opponent who is as unflappable as she is unorthodox.

Her stiff and frumpy charm, combined with the effects of Parkinson's disease, make an attack strategy risky for the Republicans. They can't afford to look like meanies, beating up on a quiet-spoken, 63-year-old woman with a disability.

She might not be a Florida icon like Lawton Chiles, Jeb's first opponent, but Ms. Reno has acquired a broader kind of celebrity.

And people who watch late-night television have been known to vote.

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