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An unpredictable public mood for primary Election Day

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 11, 2002

Florida's primary Election Day is one month away, Sept. 10, and it promises to be largely overshadowed by the nation's observance of the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans. This coincidence is bound to affect the public mood in ways that are hard to predict. Will it create a patriotic surge that increases voter turnout? Will it make voters less tolerant of political cheap shots and dishonest campaign ads? Democrats and Republicans might be wise to temper their attack rhetoric in the days leading up to and immediately following the Sept. 11 observance.

However, the somber public mood doesn't mean voters are not hungry for a serious political debate in the general election -- something they've been deprived of in the primary contests. Here we are in August, in the campaign's final stretch, and the political news stirring the most interest is the embarrassing resignation of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the mess she left behind in the state election office, and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth's last-minute decision to run for the state Senate.

From what I can tell, the Democratic race for governor so far has failed to lift the spirit of Democrats or arouse the voters. In many ways, it has been a disappointing affair, with celebrity crowding out substance, with party unity trumping the need for a serious political debate.

Janet Reno, coasting on her celebrity, has time to host a Miami Beach dance party, campaign with Hollywood celebrities and attend Democratic fundraisers around the country. But she can only fit one debate into her busy schedule. The Republican attack ads are not too far off the mark -- her campaign so far has been mostly a song and dance. She has offered few specifics on how she would improve on Gov. Jeb Bush's record on education or any other issue. Even so, polls show her with a comfortable lead over her two Democratic opponents, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride and state Sen. Daryl Jones.

McBride, meanwhile, has lumbered along, picking up labor union endorsements, touting his military record and laying out his plan for improving public schools. He is the favorite of the Democratic establishment, whose leaders view him as the party's best hope of unseating Bush, but he can't match Reno in name recognition. He at least has tried to inject some substance into the campaign. To his credit, McBride dares to speak the T-word. If elected, McBride has said he would propose a 50-cents-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes and an expansion of the sales tax to finance his education plan.

As I've said before, McBride's best chance of a breakthrough would be to engage Reno in a series of debates. But the former U.S. attorney general has agreed to only one debate. And now the sponsors of that debate have changed their mind and decided to include Daryl Jones. That means McBride will not be going head-to-head with Reno. He will have to share the stage with Reno and Jones, which means he will have fewer opportunities and less time to take on Reno.

Of course, he has had plenty of opportunities in recent months to distinguish himself from Reno, but he held back, apparently in the interest of party unity, and instead concentrated his political fire on Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of our popular war-time president. For McBride, the West Palm Beach debate less than two weeks before Election Day may be too little, too late.

The candidate who perhaps has the most to gain from the debate is Jones, an African-American who may be the most conservative of the three Democratic primary contenders. Not only does he make a favorable impression on audiences, he also probably knows more about the issues at the center of this campaign year than either Reno or McBride. He deserves to be included in the debate, regardless of his poll numbers, because as an elected official who has had to cast votes, he has something to contribute.

None of this is to suggest that Jeb Bush is a shoo-in. There is a sizable anti-Bush vote out there that will go to whoever the Democratic nominee is, and if the Democrats can attract enough independent voters, they could have a shot at the governor's office. But voters are not turkeys. They respond to candidates who give straight answers and offer clear choices.

So far, there's not much evidence that Democrats have seriously damaged Bush, who, according to polls, still holds a comfortable double-digit lead over any of his Democratic challengers. Democrats are talking about the right issues -- education, child protection and expanded social services -- but they fudge the question of how they would pay for their plans.

Floridians need to hear the truth. Their state has serious problems, and they can't be addressed on the cheap.

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