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Let the races begin I

Democrats may have lost some of their fury, but there is still hope for an engaging campaign season.

adam smith
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By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


Sigh.

Florida's campaign season officially began Saturday with the deadline for candidate qualifying. The rush of commercials is underway: Goofy dancing feet portraying Democratic gubernatorial candidates Janet Reno and Bill McBride as evasive; clanking cell doors portraying Gov. Jeb Bush as Mr. Crimefighter; shots of Bill McBride in a classroom and as a Marine to portray him as an all-around great guy.

This is the contest pundits everywhere had expected to be the most sizzling in the country: the president's brother facing re-election in the home of the fabled recount and amid Democrats still fuming over the 2000 election.

Bigger sigh.

What looked like the marquee political contest of the nation a year ago is beginning this these days to look like it could be a dud.

The throng of formidable Democrats fired up about taking on Gov. Bush has dwindled to two. Polls consistently show the governor leading any Democratic rival by roughly 20 points. More than a few party leaders acknowledge in candid moments that the race may be a foregone conclusion.

The political landscape has shifted over the last year. Sept. 11 sucked most of the poison out of recount venom. Reno's entry into the race pushed out other potentially strong candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and former Vietnam ambassador Pete Peterson.

A year ago, Democrats crowed about the likelihood of nationwide money pouring into Florida to take on Jeb. Wrong. The only gush of money is flowing into Bush's re-election campaign. Reno, with her national name recognition, has raised even less than McBride, who is not even well-known in the state.

Deep-pocketed Democrats are sitting on their wallets. They think no one has a chance to beat Reno in the Sept. 10 primary and that Reno has no chance against Bush in November. McBride, the great hope of party elites, has yet to break out from Reno's shadow. His hope that several weeks of TV commercials can overcome Reno's nearly 30-point lead looks optimistic at best.

So where does this leave all of us who had hoped for a dramatic election year in Florida? With more opportunities for excitement and color than it might initially appear.

Sure, Democrats have yet to galvanize voters about the state of Florida's schools under a governor who campaigns relentlessly on his passion for education. Yes, Democrats failed even to field a candidate for chief financial officer, a crucial Cabinet seat. And granted, redistricting has ensured safe re-election campaigns for most Republican legislators and Congress members.

But there are signs of a political pulse throughout the state.

We actually have a race for agriculture commissioner, with the last-minute entry of Democrat Mary Barley. The choice couldn't be more stark or colorful, and for a change the race could be as much about consumers as agricultural policy. Incumbent Republican Charles Bronson is a down-home, diehard friend of agriculture, while Barley is a wealthy widow who has thrown vast energy and money into cleaning up the Everglades and taking on Florida's sugar industry.

But the unhappiest politician in Florida last week had to be Republican state Rep. Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach. He had been poised to skate into a state Senate seat redrawn to exclude incumbent Republican Debby Sanderson of Fort Lauderdale after she ran afoul of Senate President John McKay. Sorry, Jeff. On Thursday, outgoing Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth jumped into the Senate race and became an automatic frontrunner.

A week earlier, it was U.S. Rep. John Mica of Winter Park who lost his shoe-in status in a redrawn district that extends from Winter Park to northeast Florida. Just before the congressional filing deadline, millionaire Democratic trial lawyer Wayne Hogan opted to take on the 10-year incumbent.

Most voters in the district are Republicans. But because the Legislature carved out a central Florida congressional seat for House Speaker Tom Feeney, the district is less Republican than it used to be. Mica has a lot of new voters to meet. Hogan was part of the legal team that won Florida's 1997 settlement with the tobacco industry, and his entry ensures a battle where no one expected one.

Then there's the race for Democrat U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman's seat. Republican lawmakers targeted her more than anyone else. They dramatically strengthened the Republican leanings in the district to help Thurman's main Republican challenger, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville. Both are scrappy and shrewd campaigners. This is a race to watch.

And the governor's race? Don't write off its drama potential yet.

McBride, with at least four times as much money to spend on TV than Reno, will inevitably close Reno's lead. The primary could be a lot more interesting than many expect.

And the general election race will tighten regardless of the Democratic nominee. Buddy MacKay four years ago won nearly 45 percent of the vote. And that was running with a deeply divided party and against a Republican candidate, Bush, who antagonized relatively few voters.

Bush remains popular four years later, but he has a controversial record -- from overhauling affirmative action to leading the state during the 2000 election recount -- that fires up much of the Democratic base as nothing did in 1998.

Voters of all stripes are about to start paying attention, and the volatile economy does nothing to help Republicans. But Democrats have to convince Floridians that the charismatic governor has been the failure that they claim.

Those who doubt Reno's ability to excite voters missed her quirky Janet Reno Dance Party, where 2,000 frenzied people showed up to cheer her on. Butterworth was there, and he said he hasn't seen that kind of excitement at a political event outside of a presidential race.

He believes pollsters don't adequately measure her support. They don't find the waitress working multiple jobs who sees Reno as an inspiration and someone who will stand up for average Floridians.

"Never underestimate Janet," Butterworth said.

McBride, whose life story is one of overcoming obstacles, says the same thing about himself: "I may be new to this, but I'm not new to a fight."

There may be some life in this election season yet.

-- Adam C. Smith, Times political editor, can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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