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    Republicans continue swinging at McBride

    Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan reaches back more than a decade to criticize Bill McBride's law firm management.

    By ADAM C. SMITH and STEVE BOUSQUET
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 24, 2002


    Asked about Bill McBride last month, Gov. Jeb Bush said the Democratic gubernatorial candidate was such a long shot he wasn't worth talking about.

    Times have changed.

    McBride is now squarely in the sights of the Bush campaign, which appears determined to help him lose the Sept. 10 Democratic primary to Janet Reno.

    The latest salvo came Friday from Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. He called a Tallahassee news conference to accuse the Tampa lawyer of cutting health benefits and firing staffers to help his firm's already wealthy lawyers make another $50,000 a year.

    "Put simply, the money he took from the working rank-and-file he turned around and gave to people who were making more than $200,000 a year already," Brogan said at a news conference at state Republican headquarters.

    Brogan cited a 1992 article in American Lawyer magazine about cuts made at Holland & Knight in 1990 and 1991. At the time, McBride served on a three-person management team running the firm. He was elected managing partner in 1992 to lead the firm himself.

    The article noted that in 1990, the firm cut $5-million from its projected 1991 budget -- including cutting top administrative positions and increasing what employees paid for their spouses and children's health insurance -- which led to a $50,000 increase in per-partner profits in 1991.

    "The changes were not unfair, just logical," read a blowup quote from McBride posted on the wall near Brogan.

    Marty Steinberg, a former Holland & Knight lawyer who served on the management committee, said in a phone interview that the cuts were aimed at avoiding more widespread layoffs.

    Other firms had made similar moves well before Holland & Knight during that economic downturn, and partners saw their retirement benefits dramatically reduced, said Steinberg, who said he is undecided in the governor's race.

    The McBride campaign said the latest attack misrepresented McBride's record leading the firm and showed Bush is worried about McBride's candidacy. McBride's momentum is growing, they said, and the Republicans know it.

    "The facts are that McBride expanded health benefits, lowered costs to employees and established a 'living wage' of at least $12 per hour for all Holland & Knight employees," the campaign said in a statement.

    Brogan's news conference was the latest in a series of shots that the Bush campaign has taken at McBride, who polls show is trailing Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, in the primary race.

    On Monday, the Bush campaign launched a TV ad campaign slamming McBride as a "reckless" business manager. On Thursday, someone in a duck suit showed up at a McBride news conference, accusing him of "ducking" the question of how he would pay for lower class sizes.

    The broadsides underscore how Bush and the state GOP are taking nothing for granted and spending a lot of money to define McBride their way. So far, Republicans have spent more money weighing in on the Democrats running for governor than the Democrats themselves.

    "I don't think there is much doubt that the Bush campaign is licking its chops at the prospect of facing Janet Reno," University of Florida political scientist Stephen Craig said. "I think they see McBride as a potentially more formidable opponent because he doesn't have Reno's negatives and he doesn't carry Reno's baggage."

    Bush wouldn't be the first candidate aggressively trying to pick his general election opponent. In California last year, Gov. Gray Davis spent millions of dollars in that state's Republican primary to knock out the Republican opponent he feared more. Gray's media consultant also works for McBride.

    McBride had anticipated Republican TV attacks and weeks ago filmed a response ad, which started airing this week. Seated in a classroom, he says in the ad that Bush is attacking him because he would be the toughest Democrat to beat: "Jeb Bush's ads aren't true. If he really believes he can defend them, then he should. Face-to-face in a debate. I'm ready, Jeb. Are you?"

    Polls in June showed McBride trailing Reno by nearly 30 points. But since the little-known lawyer started running TV ads, Democrats are increasingly talking about a potentially close primary.

    The Reno campaign, after months of downplaying the necessity of running TV spots in the primary, is now expected to take advantage of the state party's offer to run ads on her behalf as they have McBride.

    "We are ruling nothing in or out for our paid advertising strategy," said Reno campaign spokeswoman Nicole Harburger.

    Reno will also launch a second "red truck tour," driving her pickup across the state for the final 10 days before the Sept. 10 primary.

    Bush campaign spokesman Todd Harris said he has seen no internal polling showing McBride anywhere close to Reno, but wants to make sure McBride is not the only one defining himself to voters.

    "You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The public right now is getting its first impression of him, and people ought to have a picture of his record in its entirety," Harris said.

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