By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
COCONUT CREEK -- When Morty and Bernice Horowitz left cold and gray Long Island for sunny South Florida two decades ago, they joined a mass migration that transformed Broward pastures into a bastion of Democratic power.
West of Fort Lauderdale, a stone's throw from the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, the Horowitzes found Wynmoor Village. It's one of many gated condominium communities between Hollywood and West Palm Beach that make Broward home to more registered voters and more Democrats than any other Florida county.
Broward's nearly 1-million voters include 481,000 Democrats, more than Hillsborough and Pinellas combined. The county also is home to a Hispanic population that's growing as many older New Deal Democrats are dying.
But retirees have clout because they still vote in huge numbers, and that makes Broward a pivotal battleground in the battle between former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic nomination for governor.
"Do the math," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a Democratic fundraiser and Al Gore strategist. "Five counties: Broward, Palm Beach, Dade, Orange and Hillsborough. Period. In a Democratic primary, it's those five counties. Gore almost carried that model to success in the election."
Wynmoor has 10,000 Democrats. More than 90 percent of them voted for Gore, but more than 2,000 of them did not go to the polls in November 2000. Gore won Broward by 209,000 votes, but he lost the state by 537 votes.
"Because those 2,000 people failed to vote, we now have George W. Bush in the White House," said Irwin Fass, master of ceremonies for a recent Reno visit to Broward. "Make sure not only you vote, but make sure your neighbors vote."
The sentiment is the same at the other end of the county.
Murray Hirsh, 77, has helped recruit 115 volunteers to work for Reno and get more voters out this year than in 2000, when 70 percent of Pembroke Pines' Century Village residents cast ballots.
"Gore would have been in the White House if Century Village had come through like it should have," Hirsh said. "We're not going to let it happen again."
These pastel retirement enclaves, with their golf carts and canasta tables, are can't-miss stops on the campaign tour for every race, from president to county judge. Wynmoor. Kings Point in Tamarac. And seemingly every few miles another Century Village.
Each one is a city-within-a-city with its own restaurants, golf courses, newspapers and voting precincts.
Many Broward retirees came from Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey. Their lives were defined by the Depression and World War II, and their heroes are Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Many are Jewish, proud of their liberalism and union ties. At a time when the number of independent voters is rising dramatically, these Democrats are among the most loyal partisans anywhere.
For that reason, painful memories of the 2000 recount are still vivid in Broward, where a canvassing board judge used an oversized magnifying glass to hunt for hanging chad.
Despite its political energy, Broward's turnout in September's Democratic primaries has traditionally lagged behind the rest of the state. One reason: Many retirees escape the heat of August to vacation up north and don't return until after the Labor Day weekend.
The number of consistent voters in condo precincts also is shrinking every year as retirees die and are replaced by snowbirds or seasonal residents with less attachment to the Democratic Party.
McBride's campaign rejects the idea that victory in Broward, the Democratic Party's strongest county, is vital to victory in the primary.
While McBride's goal is to be competitive with Reno in Broward, campaign manager Robin Rorapaugh said more Democrats live in each of two other regions: the Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa to Daytona Beach, and the state's northern tier, from Pensacola to Jacksonville.
"The dominance that South Florida once had in statewide primaries is just not the reality anymore," she said.
Rorapaugh said her research indicates Democrats in Central Florida's I-4 corridor are more likely to vote in primaries than their South Florida counterparts. Her definition of a likely voter is one who has voted in at least one of the last three primary elections.
Reno, a Miami native familiar from her years as Miami-Dade state attorney, appears to be the overwhelming favorite among South Florida voters. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll of Democratic voters in late March showed 65 percent of South Florida Democrats favored Reno, compared with 6 percent for McBride.
Jim Kane of the Florida Voter, who follows Broward political trends for candidates, said McBride is grossly underestimating the influence of Broward Democrats.
"He can't get clobbered 60-40 or 65-35 and still expect the rest of the state to make up for it. It's just not going to happen," Kane said. "He's got to make it close in South Florida, and at this point, I see no evidence that he's anywhere near making this a close race in South Florida."
Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a former Broward sheriff and judge, said Broward and Palm Beach counties are now pivotal to winning the Democratic nomination. Palm Beach, home to 313,000 Democrats, is increasingly the home of younger retirees.
"It's going to come down to those two counties. If those two counties split, then you end up with Tampa and St. Pete being the key place," Butterworth said.
Broward has an old-style, political-machine quality not found elsewhere in the state. The county boasts 42 Democratic clubs, whose presidents have been known to exchange endorsements for free dinners or paid ads in club newsletters. Politicians privately complain about being hit up constantly for tickets and ads.
Paid consultants are mandatory in judicial elections. Support for Israel has been an issue in drainage district races. Candidates have been ostracized for handing out brochures without a printer's union "bug," or label.
On a recent morning, Reno visited Wynmoor Village, where her star power drew a crowd of more than 300, many in Bermudas, white socks and tennis shoes. Before Reno's red truck arrived, the troops were fed, as is the local custom.
Wynmoor residents seem solidly in Reno's corner. But mindful of her Parkinson's disease and her fainting spell last January, they worry about her durability over the course of a long and grueling campaign.
"I think she has a good record. She had a couple of fiascos, unfortunately, which weren't all her fault. But overall, she did a good job," Morty Horowitz said.
"I just hope she stays well," his wife, Bernice, added.
Still, many people in Broward question Reno's electability.
The talk in McBride's camp is that Reno is riding high now only because she's better known. McBride boosters say Reno can't beat Bush because she's saddled with too much baggage from her days as Bill Clinton's attorney general and that her perceived liberalism will cost her dearly among conservatives in North Florida.
"Her support is kind of soft, and I think it's peaked," said state Rep. Roger Wishner, D-Sunrise, one of 10 South Florida legislators who back McBride. "I don't think she can beat Bush."
To longtime Broward political activists who have endured brutal intra-party wars in past races for U.S. Senate, Congress and governor, such talk is worrisome.
"I don't like people going around, saying, "She can't beat Bush.' Don't even say those words," said Georgia Kaizer, 73, a member of the Inverrary Democratic Club. "That negativism is going to ruin it."
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