Ignoring the whispers

Campaign: Despite private criticism among Florida Democrats about her politics and health, Janet Reno pushes on in her run for governor.

January 14, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- Just before she stepped off with labor union marchers in Miami the other day, Janet Reno made a prediction about the Florida governor's contest.

"It's going to be fun," she confidently told a supporter.

So far, however, the former attorney general's campaign has been something less than a pleasure cruise.

Over the private opposition of some leading Florida Democrats, reportedly including U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, Reno announced her decision to run in early September. Days later, the terrorist attacks halted partisan political activity. Reno was forced to lend her campaign $100,000, prompting questions about her fund-raising ability.

She remains the clear front-runner to win the Democratic nomination to square off against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. But early polls predict her losing to the president's brother in November.

That could change if the state's hard-hit economy fails to bounce back by summer and voters take out their frustration on the governor. During these balmy January days, however, one of the biggest challenges facing Reno is preventing the campaign from becoming a referendum on her ability to do the job.

She continues to face backstage whispers from some fellow Florida Democrats who, unable to dissuade her from running, hope she'll pull out before the September primary.

Perhaps the anti-Reno faction should check with former officials of the Clinton White House, who had similar expectations that the stubbornly unmanageable attorney general would take a hint and quit. Instead, Reno held the post longer than any attorney general in a hundred years.

Most of the current whispering concerns Reno's health. She announced six years ago that she had Parkinson's disease, and her trembling hands are a visible reminder of the neurological disorder.

She says her doctors have assured her that the disease, which is incurable, would not prevent her from carrying out her duties as governor. Reno and her campaign are also playing up her love of kayaking, a strenuous pastime, and there are no signs that her health has deteriorated.

But the condition can interfere with her ability to communicate with voters.

At the recent Service Employees Union demonstration here, Reno was handed a portable microphone to address several hundred enthusiastic workers. She had great difficulty holding it close enough to pick up her words, even after she grabbed her wrist with her free hand in an unsuccessful attempt to steady it.

"Now, sometimes my hand wobbles like this, like it's directing a drunken orchestra," she explained to the crowd, which had been watching the awkward display with concern. "But what I tell people is, a man signed the Declaration of Independence, turned to somebody and said, `My hand may tremble, but my heart does not.'"

To applause, Reno added, "My heart, my soul, everything that I have in me is dedicated to this state."

The incident was one example of how adept the 63-year-old candidate has been at turning her weaknesses into strengths.

To those who insist she's not electable, Reno has joked that she might have to get a lapel pin with three suitcases on it, as symbols of her political baggage: "One says Waco [the bloody raid she ordered on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas in 1993], one says Elian [the 6-year-old refugee she returned to Cuba in 1999] and one says Parkinson's."

She heatedly rejects the suggestion that she's too liberal to attract the independent suburban and rural swing votes needed to win statewide.

"Do you think it is really a liberal thing to return a little boy back to his daddy?" she says in a brief interview.

Almost flaunting her lack of concern over the liberal tag, her first high-profile fund-raising event featured TV personality Rosie O'Donnell, whose vocal support for such causes as gun control have made her a lightning rod for conservative criticism.

Grass-roots tour

Reno is appealing to centrist voters by promoting her image as a tough-as-nails decision-maker in Washington and her folksy Florida roots. She plans a grass-roots tour of the state behind the wheel of her red 1999 Ford Ranger pickup truck (bought used), starting in the most conservative part of Florida.

"I'm gonna start in the Panhandle and go east in the red truck and talk to people along the way," she says, to "tell them my hopes and dreams for Florida, which I think they share."

Even Republicans regard Reno's truck as a brilliant campaign gimmick. It has prompted comparisons to the late Lawton Chiles' 1,033-mile walk across Florida in the 1970 Senate race, when he introduced himself to voters, earned a nickname (Walkin' Lawton) and launched a highly successful statewide career.

Reno, by contrast, is already more recognizable than the man she is trying to unseat. As she marched through the downtown streets of her native Miami, heads turned as locals and out-of-state tourists alike pointed at the woman in the powder blue dress.

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