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Discouraging news for Democrats

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

The big political story last week was that Janet Reno fainted during a speech in Rochester, N.Y. It was front-page news in Florida, where some Democrats went public with their concerns about her health -- and electability. Reno has fainted before, on at least two occasions when she was U.S. Attorney General, and there is no reason to believe she won't faint again in public. It's not a big deal, Reno insisted. After all, she reminded reporters, President Bush fainted the other day after choking on a pretzel.

Reno's doctors came forward to say her fainting spell had nothing to do with her Parkinson's disease, and that, in their opinion, she is up to the rigors of a gubernatorial campaign. That may suffice for now, but Reno should be under no illusions -- her health is a legitimate issue, and if she should win the Democratic nomination for governor, Reno is going to have to make a fuller disclosure of her medical records than she has so far.

Lois Frankel, one of Reno's primary opponents, called Reno's fainting spell a "blip" in the campaign but added, "She's going to have to answer the questions that anybody who's running for public office, anybody who's fainted or collapsed, would have to answer." Bill McBride, who is Reno's closest rival for the Democratic nomination, said he doesn't see Reno's health as an issue. Surely he knows better. Even some of Reno's supporters are now asking the candidate for reassurance that she is up to the fight.

It may not be the most important issue, but it is one that voters cannot ignore in choosing the strongest candidate to take on Gov. Jeb Bush in the fall. It will be an issue until Reno, who is 63, puts it to rest, one way or the other. The real concern about her health is not the fainting spells but the progression of Parkinson's disease. The question her medical history cannot answer is what course this unpredictable disease might take in the next few years.

The truth is, Reno's health is not the only concern of those Democrats who keep hoping she will exit the race. Even if she were in perfect health, they fear she carries enough political baggage to sink Democratic hopes of evicting Jeb Bush from the governor's mansion. Bob Kerrigan, a Pensacola lawyer and Democratic fundraiser, told the Associated Press last week that Reno would take "too many issues away from Jeb Bush."

He explained: "We've got her health condition, things that took place during the Clinton administration that will be discussed as opposed to (Bush's) terrible, terrible record in Florida."

Recent polls suggest that Bush would trounce Reno in the general election. However, those polls don't seem to have diminished Reno's support among Democratic primary voters. Reno brings to Florida politics something many Democrats find irresistible -- star power.

Slowly but surely, I think McBride, who suffers from lack of name recognition, is gaining momentum as the alternative to Reno. He leads in fundraising so far, and he recently won the endorsement of the state teachers' union, a major disappointment for Reno. According to some reports, the Tampa lawyer can expect the endorsement of the state AFL-CIO. Labor unions bring a lot of political muscle and organization to a campaign, and they can make a difference in a crowded primary election. (Remember, there will be no run-off in this four-candidate race.) But can the unions deny Reno the prize? I wouldn't bet on it. For one thing, rank-and-file union members don't always follow their leaders. Also, Reno's appeal transcends politics -- something about her grit, resilience and sturdy character.

Another political story last week should be as discouraging to Democrats as the Reno candidacy. Jeb Bush's approval rating is up to 58 percent, the highest ever, according to a new Mason-Dixon Poll conducted for Florida news organizations. Even more dismaying to Democrats is that his approval rating among black voters now stands at 35 percent despite the governor's replacement of affirmative action in college admissions and the 2000 presidential election debacle in which a disproportionate number of black voters had their ballots tossed because of voting errors and ballot problems.

Democrats insist that the latest poll numbers suggest that President Bush's extraordinary popularity as a war-time leader -- 80 percent and better -- is, for the moment, rubbing off on his brother. They contend that the poll numbers will tell another story once the campaign focuses on Jeb Bush's record as governor. They may be right about that, but Democrats have a history of underestimating any candidate named Bush. So far, the Bush family counts a former president, a president and a governor among its own.

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