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    Gubernatorial candidates better make their mark

    By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 16, 2002

    When are we going to see something resembling a real Democratic primary contest for governor? By that, I mean candidates debating issues, drawing differences among themselves and answering questions that so far they have avoided asking each other. The candidates tell us to be patient, that they'll show us more closer to the Sept. 10 primary.

    Janet Reno, Bill McBride and Daryl Jones have given voters the impression that there's not a dime's worth of difference among them. If that's the case, then maybe it doesn't matter who becomes the Democratic nominee. Maybe name recognition is all that distinguishes Reno from McBride.

    For months now Reno and McBride have been collecting endorsements, raising money, building organizations and planning their television advertising. Reno, still the front-runner in the pack, has campaigned with former talk-show queen Rosie O'Donnell and actor Martin Sheen, a political leftist who plays the president of the United States on NBC's West Wing. McBride doesn't have any Hollywood connections, but former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, hosted a recent fundraiser for the former Tampa attorney in New York.

    For a while, the Democratic candidates made joint appearances around Florida, bashing Republican Gov. Jeb Bush but uttering not a critical word about each other. Reno, who earlier this year toured the state in her red pickup, tries to ignore McBride and Jones, and for the most part they have allowed her to get away with it. McBride has put forward his education plan, which calls for new taxes to raise an additional $1-billion for Florida's public schools. We're still waiting for Reno to roll out her education and tax proposals.

    No one is asking the Democratic candidates to engage in a bloody brawl that could cripple the party's eventual nominee. I'm all for positive campaigning. But with less than three months to go before the primary, it's not too early for Floridians to begin to see and hear the candidates debating issues critical to the state's future and giving voters a chance to start taking their measure.

    If, as the candidates and their consultants argue, no one is paying attention to the campaign in the early summer months, it is partly the candidates' fault. They might be surprised how many voters would tune in if the candidates engaged in some serious debates.

    Reno, the former U.S. attorney general in the Clinton administration, has been coasting on her celebrity, ducking questions from reporters and offering few specifics on anything. She also appears to be avoiding debates with McBride, who badly needs the exposure to overcome his lack of name recognition around the state (he is an unknown to 41 percent of the voters, according to recent polls). So far, Reno is the only candidate who has not committed to a Sept. 3 debate organized by WFLA-Ch. 8 in Tampa, to be hosted by Tim Russert, the moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, and broadcast statewide. Reno must know she cannot afford to be a no-show.

    Both Reno and McBride badly need debate experience because one of them is going to wind up on stage crossing political swords with Bush. Primary campaign debates give candidates, especially those making their first bid for public office, an opportunity to hone their message and sharpen their debating skills before they step into the ring for the big event in the fall.

    Maybe Reno thinks she has more to lose than gain by debating her opponents. She may be right. Some good debates just might shake up this race. There are signs that Reno's sit-on-her-lead strategy is causing some Democrats to reconsider their support for her. The latest Mason-Dixon Poll found that McBride has been gaining ground at Reno's expense. Reno has seen her 4-to-1 lead over McBride in January narrow to 2-to-1 in June. According to the poll of Democratic voters, Reno is the choice of 53 percent, with McBride coming in at 25 percent and Jones at 3 percent. The rest are undecided.

    The bad news for Democrats is that the same poll showed Bush trouncing either Reno or McBride if the election were held today. Of course, the general election will be held in November, and a lot can change between now and then -- and probably will.

    McBride's central pitch to Democrats is that he has a better chance of defeating Bush than Reno, who has been defined by her controversial years as attorney general. Being a political unknown, McBride contends, is an advantage, for it gives him the opportunity to define himself. He makes a good point.

    Later this summer, McBride plans to spend a big chunk of his modest campaign war chest on television advertising aimed at introducing himself and his agenda to voters. McBride is facing a formidable challenge. He needs to remember this: Before he can take on Jeb Bush, he's going to have to take on Janet Reno. Time's a wastin'. Let the debates begin in small towns and cities across Florida. The sooner, the better.

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