Jeb Bush fights to save Fla. for GOP

Late polls show governor with a 6- to 8-point lead

October 30, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - Perspiration pours down Jeb Bush's face as he hands supporters free hot dogs at a rally on Florida's steamy Gulf Coast.

President Bush's younger brother is sweating out the closing days of his high-stakes run for a second term as Florida governor. He's the top Democratic target in Tuesday's midterm elections, as the parties compete for a measure of vindication after the disputed presidential vote here two years ago.

"In Florida, the wind blows this way and, a week later, the wind blows back," Bush tells the crowd, sliding his hand from right to left to mimic opinion shifts in the state. "I need your help for four more years."

If the polls are right, a tailwind has Bush headed for re-election. The latest statewide opinion surveys show the governor with a 6- to 8-point lead over Democrat Bill McBride, a wealthy corporate lawyer who has never run for office before.

"If we get a huge turnout, we will win," McBride likes to say. But the rancorous 36-day ballot standoff of two years ago is a nonfactor today. Despite national Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe's recent boast that Florida voters would deal a devastating blow to the Bushes, as payback for 2000, there's no sign of an anti-Jeb tidal wave.

The contest for governor isn't only about bragging rights. Florida is likely to be the biggest prize that is truly up for grabs in 2004. (Only heavily Democratic California and New York and reliably Republican Texas will deliver more electoral votes.) Having an incumbent governor will give one of the parties an edge.

President Bush, eager to protect his family's prestige and his own re-election prospects, has raised millions for his brother's campaign, visited Florida a dozen times and dispensed an array of official favors.

Environmentalists were delighted, for instance, when the administration agreed to buy back oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico to prevent offshore drilling. The deal was seen as a political favor to the president's brother, who acknowledged that it would help him but defended it as "good public policy," too.

Bush, 49, seems to be suffering less than other incumbent governors from a sluggish national economy, which is being blamed for a projected $2 billion state budget deficit. The state's tourist-based economy took a hit after the Sept. 11 attacks, but joblessness is below the national average and lower than any other big state. Recent polling shows that most Floridians feel positive about the direction the state is headed.

In the campaign, Bush is heavily outspending his Democratic rival and keeping him on the defensive over taxes, hurting McBride's attempts to appeal to moderates and conservatives. The governor's television ads warn Floridians that they may soon have to start paying a state income tax to finance new programs that McBride supports.

The challenger is backing an initiative on the ballot requiring smaller class sizes in public schools. Bush, who opposes the measure as the wrong approach, was caught on tape saying he has "devious plans" to prevent the plan from taking effect.

Polls show support for the initiative dropping, as voters learn more about the cost, and the issue may be boomeranging on McBride. Last week, the Democrat was forced to acknowledge in a televised debate that the price tag for implementing the plan could reach $15 billion.

McBride, trying to rebut what he calls Bush's "scare tactics," is arguing that the only new tax he's proposing is a 50-cent increase on a pack of cigarettes.

Critics say McBride, 57, has been short on specifics and note that he's proposed less than $1 billion in new funding for schools. Privately, Democratic politicians say that unless their candidate can turn the focus of the campaign away from taxes, the race is effectively over.

McBride has made little progress against Bush since narrowly winning the Democratic primary over former Attorney General Janet Reno last month. Another South Florida voting breakdown kept the result in doubt for several days, sapping McBride's momentum and costing him valuable time in refilling his depleted treasury.

Recently, money and manpower were sent from Democratic headquarters in Washington to try to rescue McBride and unseat Bush, which the party's national chairman recently called his top goal in the 2002 election.

Anti-Bush weapons include recorded telephone messages from former President Bill Clinton, now being dialed into heavily black precincts in South Florida that McBride lost in the primary. Clinton urges residents to vote now (early polling sites opened last week), thus avoiding any election-day problems.

Bush, who is regarded as more of a conservative ideologue and policy wonk than his older brother, is essentially reprising the moderate message that won him the governorship by a 10-point margin in 1998. He defends his record on education against McBride's charge that the state ranks near the bottom nationally in school quality, while claiming progress in fighting crime and illegal drug use.

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