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GOP turns tough ad on McBride

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002


Bill McBride may be trailing well behind Janet Reno in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, but the state Republican Party isn't taking him for granted.

Bill McBride may be trailing well behind Janet Reno in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, but the state Republican Party isn't taking him for granted.

The GOP on Monday launched its toughest TV attack ad to date, accusing McBride of violating campaign finance laws and calling him a "reckless" businessman.

McBride tried to spin those tough words in his favor.

"I think the guy's pretty nervous," McBride said. "I think his polls show the same thing we show. He's going to have a hard time running a positive campaign because he hasn't had a good four years."

Asked if the ad angered him, McBride said it had not. He said he thinks the ad has elevated his campaign.

McBride's own polls suggest he is narrowing the gap with Reno as the campaign nears the Sept. 10 primary. The McBride campaign contends Bush worried more about McBride than Reno in the Nov. 5 general election.

The newest ad, running in the Tampa Bay area and other Florida TV markets, is the third negative ad the party has run against Reno and McBride. But it's the first time the GOP has targeted McBride.

"Corporate lawyer Bill McBride -- trick accounting at his campaign, reckless management at his law firm. Just too much fancy footwork for Florida," states the ad, which shows wing-tipped feet tap-dancing beside a briefcase.

The ad, produced by Gov. Jeb Bush's media consultant, started airing just as McBride was stepping up his own TV campaign, hoping to peel away Reno's lead in opinion polls.

The state teachers union, which backs McBride, started running spots for him in the crucial Miami area Monday. McBride's own ads and ads financed by the state Democratic Party also started running in most other TV markets.

The Reno campaign, which has little money for TV, estimates McBride will have spent about $2.1-million in TV ads by week's end. All the McBride ads so far tout his calls for more public spending on schools or his background growing up in a middle-class family, enlisting in the Marines and leading Florida's biggest law firm.

McBride became managing partner of Holland & Knight in 1992, and the firm grew from roughly 300 lawyers to nearly 1,300. When he resigned to run for governor last year, Holland & Knight was the largest law firm in Florida and seventh largest in the nation. McBride often touts his business experience and his firm's commitment to balancing profits and charity work.

But last year, nearly 11 months after McBride resigned, Holland & Knight laid off 60 lawyers and 170 other employees. The firm cited the need to cut expenses during the economic downturn.

The Republican ad accuses him of borrowing money to "recklessly" expand the firm, and then running for governor "just before" 230 people lost their jobs.

"Bill McBride is running on his record at his law firm, and we think people ought to be given a complete picture of what that record looks like," said Todd Harris, Bush's campaign spokesman.

The spot reflected no particular fear of McBride, he said. If Reno were running TV ads, they'd be going after her too, Harris said.

Since the layoffs, Holland & Knight has continued expanding, acquiring an 85-lawyer Chicago firm in June. Still, at least one of McBride's most dramatic initiatives -- raising the minimum pay of support staff to $12-an-hour -- was suspended for new hires after he left.

Asked to comment on the ad, Holland & Knight managing partner Robert Feagin issued a statement that the firm would not involve itself in political discussions. But he said McBride "contributed enormously to to the success and growth of Holland & Knight. . . ."

The ad also refers to the McBride campaign using "tricky accounting" to evade campaign finance laws. It's a reference to pro-McBride ads that the state teachers union is airing and that the Republican Party maintains are illegal. TV stations across the state have so far disagreed, as did a Florida Elections Commission attorney, who dismissed a Republican complaint. The GOP appealed, and the full commission has since agreed to investigate the 30-second ad.

In the era of Enron and WorldCom, Republicans hope words like "corporate lawyer" and "tricky accounting" will sour voters on McBride. But Republicans also risk inviting attacks on Bush's own business experience, an issue so far rarely discussed by the Democrats.

One of Bush's former business partners, for instance, faces a Justice Department lawsuit accusing him of defrauding the government of tens of millions of dollars. In the 1980s, Bush for three years reported no income for federal tax purposes by using complex business investment and real estate write-offs.

-- Staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

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