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    Reno shows a softer side on road tour

    With hugs and smiles and time for kids, she's eager to put images of Waco and Elian behind her.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002


    Janet Reno is tooling down the highway in her red pickup truck reciting Voyage to the Bunny Planet.

    Far beyond the moon and stars, 20 light years south of Mars spins the gentle bunny planet. And the bunny queen is Janet.

    Reno adores the children's story so much that a reporter riding with her to Ocala asks her to recite a few lines. She does. From memory.

    Janet the Bunny Queen is magical, kind and wise. She makes unhappy children happy.

    Janet the former attorney general also wants to make children happy, by becoming the next governor of Florida.

    But she is struggling to persuade people that she has the political magic she needs to make that happen.

    By Saturday, the 63-year-old Democrat had driven her 1999 Ford Ranger from the Alabama line to Broward County, never straying above the speed limit. She is now more than a third of the way through a statewide tour aimed at showing skeptics that one of America's most unusual politicians can captivate voters enough to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

    "The future of Florida is at stake," she shouted to some 125 people in Gainesville, a light crowd for a rally in a Democratic stronghold that also featured Bo Diddley. "Why do I do this? I do this because I was born in this state. I care about this state, and I love its people."

    As much as Reno wants to prove she can excite voters even outside of liberal South Florida, she was often met last week by small, placid crowds drawn as much by her celebrity as her campaign.

    She says she sees Floridians already fired up about the election, eight months away. But on the red truck tour they were hard to find.

    "She seems really good, but I don't hear a lot of people talking about the race. It's pretty low-key right now," said Troy Tribble, an art student at historically black Florida A&M University, where Reno visited twice.

    The day she visited Gainesville, the University of Florida's student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, editorialized that Reno should drop out to give Democrats a real shot at beating Bush. Leaders in the Democratic establishment suggest the same thing.

    She has too much "negative baggage," they say, to appeal to moderate voters and win Florida's general election.

    Reno, a famously independent soul, is unbowed. After all, the other Democrats -- Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, and state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach -- are barely known in Florida. Reno contends she is the only candidate who can generate the excitement to turn out enough voters to beat Bush.

    The criticism from Democratic Party elites seems only to motivate her further.

    "This is a people's election," she told supporters while opening her Miami Lakes campaign headquarters before the truck tour. "It's not the party, and it's not the people who say, "Here's a big check.' "

    The people who see Reno in person usually tell her the same thing. She's nicer than expected, more attractive than expected and, at 6 feet 2, taller than expected.

    "I was a little surprised by her," farmer Clarence Lewis said after eating fried chicken and cabbage with Reno at a restaurant in Quincy, east of Tallahassee. "She really seems down to earth and sincere."

    Rather than the familiar scowl of Attorney General Reno, people on the campaign trail see a lady with a big smile who loves to hug. When a Tallahassee bookstore set up a leather chair for her to use while reading to children for the news cameras, Reno insteadplunked herself on the floor with the kids.

    This is the Reno she needs to show Floridians. Polls show that at least four out of 10 voters have a negative impression of her.

    "The times I appeared before the nation before, with Waco or Elian . . . the subjects were usually so grim that they didn't see the other side of me," Reno said while steering the truck through mostly conservative north-central Florida.

    The cab of the now-famous red truck is still fairly clean, except for a stray map, a purse and a travel bag. She travels for much of the trip with her younger brother, Mark, a character in his own right (a sometime tugboat captain, park ranger, bailiff and carpenter). For most of the trip, reporters follow behind in a white van, taking brief turns with the candidate inside the cab. Campaign staffers tag along in two other vehicles.

    In an era of packaged politicians, Reno, like her beloved Bunny Queen, seems like she comes from another planet: There is nothing slick about her.

    Stand a foot away when she speaks and you can barely hear her. She will spend 10 minutes with a voter, often doing more listening than talking. She chokes up when speaking of cleaning up the Everglades or taking care of seniors, as she did for her mother.

    Her Parkinson's disease often causes her hands to shake violently, but Reno is not at all self-conscious about it. The fluttering hands, in fact, are as much a part of her what-you-see-is-what-you-get campaign image as her red pickup.

    In the small North Florida town of Perry, high school teacher Ann Wight had doubts about Reno before seeing her talk to a small crowd in the Taylor County Courthouse.

    "I worried about her disease, but after meeting her personally and hearing her talk, I'm convinced she would do a great job," Mrs. Wight said.

    Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1995, but her doctors say it should have no impact on her ability to campaign or serve. Between the Parkinson's and a recent fainting episode, however, the health questions come up constantly.

    "I wonder what would have happened in November of 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for office if the press and others questioned the 10 pounds of steel on his legs," Reno told CNN during a satellite interview in Tallahassee.

    Reno moves and speaks slowly. But she showed plenty of energy on the campaign trail last week, campaigning at least 14 hours on some days.

    The campaign style may be unusual, but Reno's message is entirely conventional. She touts long-established Democratic issues: making classes smaller, improving teacher salaries, protecting the environment, providing seniors with cheaper prescription drugs, providing more drug treatment programs.

    Like the other Democratic candidates, Reno offers few specifics for how she would pay for such initiatives.

    "It will depend on what the Legislature does, to see what has to be done in response to that, and it will depend on how the economy is and what has to be done in response to that," she said.

    Such vague answers are drawing fire from Republicans. The Florida GOP has dubbed Reno's red truck tour "the empty rhetoric tour."

    But what Reno has that none of her long shot Democratic challengers can rival is star power.

    Melinda Hilterbrand, chairwoman of the Santa Rosa Democratic Party, said Republicans so dominate the Panhandle that she is usually wary about even approaching businesses about holding Democratic events nearby. It was different, though, when Reno wanted to walk Fort Walton Beach to decry offshore oil drilling.

    "I tell them Janet Reno's coming, and it's like a groupie effect for a huge celebrity," said Hilterbrand. "But does that celebrity status translate to votes? That's my question."

    Reno is sure it does. As her red truck continues crossing the state, she is paying little attention to the union leaders, party operatives and editorial writers who doubt her viability.

    "I'm going to win this election because the average person knows they can count on me to call it like I see it and to try to do the right thing," she said. "They know I'm willing to accept the consequences of a decision even if it's unpopular. I think that's what people want in a politician."

    -- Adam Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or at adam@sptimes.com.

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