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McBride's giving Reno a run until the end

Even the relatively modest amount of TV commercial time the Florida Education Association bought for McBride appears to have made a big difference . . .

By ADAM SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002


Democrats will elect their nominee for governor in just over three weeks, and a lot people think the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Nobody -- and certainly not a little-known Tampa lawyer named Bill McBride -- can overcome a worldwide celebrity like former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, they say. It's a sound assessment, given that June polls showed McBride trailing Reno by nearly 30 points.

But this is not the election year to view anything as a sure thing. Democrats haven't had a real gubernatorial primary in 12 years, which is an eternity in ever-changing Florida. There is no time-tested playbook for this election, and there are loads of variables.

Consider some of questions savvy political watchers across the state are debating:

How does the Sept. 11 anniversary affect voters in the Sept. 10 primary?

Does the lone Democratic gubernatorial debate become a factor? Could it be the vehicle that propels state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami, the longest shot candidate, into a real player in the race?

What about labor? Major union endorsements, including the AFL-CIO and Florida Education Association, have kept McBride viable, but can these groups really mobilize their hundreds of thousands of members?

Reno has little money for a TV campaign. But she is an icon to many hard-core Democrats, so does she really need it for the primary?

And the biggest uncertainty of all: How many Democrats, and which ones, will turn out to vote?

"That's the big question, and we really don't know the answer," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University. "This is the first time we've done this without a runoff primary, and it's the first time we've done it after after a disputed (presidential) election that created a lot of anger among voters." The demographics and voting patterns are also far different today than when Lawton Chiles and Bill Nelson headlined the 1990 Democratic primary.

"We're going to learn a lot from this election," he said.

The Democratic nomination is Reno's to lose. Every status quo day over the next three weeks is a bad day for McBride. The Tampa lawyer continues to promise no negative campaigning against Reno, which means voters will see little to differentiate the underdog from the widely presumed nominee.

Count on McBride to tighten the race, however. The teachers union has been airing TV ads on his behalf, his own ads start running this week, and ads from the state Democratic Party (for whom McBride has raised lots of money) are expected shortly. His campaign recently sent key fundraisers an internal polling memo that describes a quiet momentum.

"Bill McBride now leads Janet Reno or has pulled even with her in every media market of the state where television ads about Mr. McBride have aired," wrote Garin-Hart-Yang Research, which polled 611 likely Democratic primary voters Aug. 2-5.

Bear in mind this is a self-serving memo aimed at convincing people to keep the money coming for McBride. Still, McBride pollster Jeff Garin is among the top in the country, and his numbers point to Reno's vulnerability.

She still leads McBride 49 to 30 percent among primary voters. But even the relatively modest amount of TV commercial time the Florida Education Association bought for McBride appears to have made a big difference for a candidate whose own polling showed him trailing Reno by 51 points last November.

In North Florida, where 20 percent of voters live in areas unexposed to McBride ads, the poll found McBride and Reno in a dead heat. In the Orlando area, where McBride ads had run only one week, McBride moved barely ahead of Reno. In the Tampa/Fort Myers markets, where the teachers union invested the most money, McBride was leading Reno by nine points.

Then there's South Florida, where McBride had no TV exposure. The poll showed Reno leading by seven-to-one over McBride, easily enough to swamp him on Sept. 10.

The McBride campaign would not release or discuss its internal poll, but McBride acknowledged his challenge over the next few weeks.

"The battle will be joined in South Florida," he said last week while campaigning in Central Florida and Palm Beach County. "If I can get within 35 to 40 percent in South Florida against my primary opponent, we win."

Even losing South Florida by that lopsided margin is a tall order. This is where Reno's support is strongest and where making inroads is most expensive. A week of solid advertising in Miami-Dade can cost a half-million dollars. As of early this month, McBride had nearly $2-million money on hand.

His fundraising has been formidable in comparison to Reno's weak showing, but he has nowhere near the kind of money Bush and the state GOP have available to saturate the airwaves. Two Republican ads bashing Reno and McBride may be doing more to boost McBride's name recognition than anything he's doing himself.

McBride is an old Marine who loves to overcome obstacles. If he defies the odds on this one, a lot of politicos will be reconsidering their assumptions about Democratic politics in Florida.

But the clock is ticking. And every minute that passes quietly brings McBride closer to a concession speech.

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

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