© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2002
CLEARWATER -- For all the noise Democrats are making this weekend at their state convention in Orlando, Gov. Jeb Bush should be a lot more worried about the folks who attended a quiet reception at Ruth Eckerd Hall last week.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride of Tampa drew more than 200 people eager to write checks and hear him talk of "our collective responsibility" to invest more in schools and put aside partisanship. More striking than the size of the affluent crowd, though, were the number of Republicans there embracing a Democrat.
"There's a real lack of leadership in Tallahassee, and it's pitting party member against party member," said Fred Fisher, a Tarpon Springs businessman and philanthropist who was a Republican in Florida long before the GOP took control of the capital. "This man (McBride) has a long-term vision for the future of Florida."
Fisher, who donated $6.5-million to the University of Florida and has an accounting school there named after him, fretted about how the state is lagging behind the rest of the nation in countless areas, particularly education. He even urged fellow Republicans to temporarily switch parties to help McBride in his primary against former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno so he can take on Bush in November.
Nearby stood Republican Alan Bomstein, a prominent Clearwater businessman and community leader equally fired up about McBride.
Bomstein backed Bush for governor in 1998 but has been disappointed in how "very political" Bush has been in office. "Bill's the real deal, and I honestly believe he won't put his politics above the welfare of this state," said Bomstein.
And the Republican-controlled Legislature? "It disgusts me," said Bomstein.
Polls show Bush sitting pretty as he campaigns for a second term. But last week's Ruth Eckerd Hall gathering highlights an undercurrent that makes Bush vulnerable if any Democrat manages to ride it.
The Jeb Bush who campaigned four years ago as a moderate, unifying force for Florida increasingly looks out of step with many Florida voters.
A recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll found half of Florida voters unhappy with his efforts to improve schools, and education is by far the top priority of voters. And while Bush has aligned himself with the fervently antitax leaders of the state House, nearly six in 10 voters are willing to see taxes raised to benefit public schools.
When the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation released a draft report showing school funding near the bottom of 50 states and students ill-equipped to compete in the modern economy, Bush largely dismissed the findings. He scoffed at critics whom he said were seizing upon it to push "statist, high-tax policies that would cripple the progress Florida has made over the last several years."
That antitax view goes only so far even in Sarasota County, a Republican stronghold where only 18 percent of the households have children. Last month, voters there decided by a 2-to-1 margin to raise their property taxes for schools.
The Republicans mingling with McBride last week were of the Pinellas stripe: moderates who occasionally cross party lines for the right candidate. These are the constituents of Republican state Sens. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor and Don Sullivan of Seminole. The senators have given Bush heartburn by advocating the overhaul of Florida's tax system to better meet Florida's needs.
"The bottom line is I don't like the direction that the state of Florida is taking. We are Republicans, but we'll be damned if we're for Republicans who aren't for good government," said Clearwater lawyer Lou Kwall, former chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. "In all the issues that came up (in the Legislature) that were disputed, when did the governor really express an opinion and show leadership?"
These Republicans complain Bush has politicized the university system by abolishing the Board of Regents and the selection of judges by taking full control of the appointments to the judicial nominating commissions. They also are concerned about Florida's schools and what several described as the "embarrassing" Legislature.
So far, Bush's personal popularity appears to overshadow whatever misgivings many Floridians have about his record or philosophy. But the Pinellas Republican voices speaking so enthusiastically about McBride may point to the start of a Republican backlash against Bush and the party's conservative wing. More important, they show the potential for peeling off Bush's support among the kinds of swing and independent voters who decide elections.
The real question is whether any of Bush's challengers are capable of capitalizing on it. McBride, former head of Florida biggest law firm, impresses a lot of Tampa Bay's business leaders. They like his business experience (and that of his wife, former NationsBank Florida chief Alex Sink) and his background as a decorated Marine.
McBride is largely a stranger outside his Tampa Bay home turf, though, and remains a long shot to survive the Democratic primary against Reno. The former U.S. attorney general's message is similar to McBride's. But she is mainly campaigning among Florida's basic Democratic constituencies. She has yet to show broad appeal among moderate, swing voters outside South Florida.
When prominent Republicans start popping up at Democratic receptions outside of Tampa Bay, we'll know we have a real race on our hands.
-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727-893-8241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.