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    McBride turns to Panhandle notable for boost

    A virtual unknown in the region, the gubernatorial hopeful stumps with a familiar face as he woos North Florida voters.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 2, 2002


    PANAMA CITY -- Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride on Monday made his first campaign swing through the forests and bluffs of the Florida Panhandle.

    He's not widely known here, so he took along someone who is: Pete Peterson, the area's popular former congressman, ambassador and one-time gubernatorial hopeful.

    Peterson, who spent more than six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, hopes his Panhandle popularity will help McBride in his uphill battle against Janet Reno in the Sept. 10 primary.

    "I hope it brings a little needed energy and focus" to McBride's campaign, Peterson said.

    Peterson planned his own Democratic bid for governor last year, and many thought he was the kind of centrist Democrat with a good shot at Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. But Peterson dropped out after Sept. 11, saying he wanted to help on security matters.

    McBride expects North Florida to constitute 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Democrats dominate here, but they often vote Republican. McBride is counting on Peterson to deliver those votes to him.

    The two made appearances in towns throughout the Panhandle, including stops for fried chicken and greens at the Apalachee Restaurant in Bristol and for hot dogs and Golden Flake potato chips in Panama City.

    Peterson's popularity was evident.

    "Pete Peterson, he's one of our home guys," said Charles Morris Jr., 53, a Liberty County Democrat who joined about two dozen supporters in a small restaurant there to hear McBride. "We can believe him when he comes that highly recommended."

    McBride focused on Bush, repeating his commitment to education, civil service and veterans.

    As local teachers unions prepared for McBride's stops, his criticism of Bush's school spending record and reliance on a single standardized test to measure student progress met with cheers.

    "I think Jeb has missed it and McBride is right on," said Joanne Cox, a 65-year-old Panama City resident and former assistant superintendent in Bay County. Cox said she likes McBride's talk of smaller class sizes and less reliance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT. She joined about 150 other supporters at a picnic rally in Panama City.

    "Schools have become test preparation centers instead of learning centers," said Nancy Sheffield, 56, a teacher and immediate past president of the local teachers union.

    McBride, who was endorsed by the statewide teachers union, proposes a 50-cent tax on cigarettes to raise money for schools.

    When he wasn't talking about education, McBride courted the many state workers who live in the area and commute to Tallahassee. Bush's moves to dismantle some civil service programs have hurt state services, McBride said.

    And he has anointed a campaign official to focus solely on garnering the votes of the state's active and retired military voters, a constituency McBride said the Democratic Party has largely ignored.

    Both Peterson and McBride emphasized their military service during Monday's stops, and both denied they were entertaining the idea of a McBride/Peterson ticket in the fall.

    "I won't make that decision until I have to," McBride said.

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