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Reno, McBride mine support on friendly turf

The candidates toil in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold and a key to their hopes.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2002


The candidates toil in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold and a key to their hopes.

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Fresh from a televised "debate" that was an hourlong attack on Gov. Jeb Bush's record, Democrats Janet Reno and Bill McBride rallied crowds Wednesday in Broward, one place in Florida where Bush bashing never gets old.

As home to nearly a half-million Democrats, more than any other county, Broward is too big to ignore. The two leading Democrats have very different strategies here.

Reno needs a strong victory in Broward, and she is expected to carry the county handily in the Sept. 10 primary that will determine Bush's opponent. McBride, a Tampa lawyer who only lately has caught fire here, hopes to get at least 35 percent of the Democratic vote here, then clinch the nomination by beating Reno everywhere else upstate.

A high primary turnout in Broward helps Reno and a low turnout helps McBride, and history is on McBride's side. Despite its national reputation for old-style machine politics, and as the home of the now-defunct hanging chad, Broward lags behind the rest of Florida in primary turnouts.

In 1998, the last time Floridians chose a governor, a lackluster September ballot bored all but the most committed "super voters," and the Democratic turnout in Broward was 10 percent, compared with 15 percent statewide.

Broward is quickly changing, too. As liberal Jewish voters, who moved south in the 1970s and transformed the area's politics, die, they are being replaced by Hispanics, Haitians and young suburbanites who are much harder to get to the polls than New Deal Democrats.

Reno's campaign knows about Broward's history of tepid turnouts. Her campaign database claims to have an army of 1,200 potential volunteers. Workers began phoning Democrats six weeks ago, followed up this week by automated calls featuring Reno's voice.

Those calls will continue until Election Day, when the campaign plans to help seniors and others without rides get to the polls.

Traveling about in her familiar red pickup, Reno worked a half-dozen crowds all over the county, urging people to vote, telling a group of Lauderhill retirees: "Make sure you know how the machines work."

An enthusiastic crowd of 400 people welcomed Reno at Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac, where her stump speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause. She also toured a workshop for the handicapped, dined with party activists in Pompano Beach, went to a black church and thanked precinct volunteers.

At every stop, she sold a vision of smaller classes, higher teacher salaries and restoring the Everglades, and criticized Bush on all three.

"We've got to send a message that Florida is not for sale and cannot be bought," Reno told supporters.

McBride held only one major event in Broward on Wednesday. He spoke to 300 supporters, many of them retirees, at Signature Grand, a huge banquet hall in Davie where County Commissioner Lori Parrish introduced him as the only candidate "who can take Jeb Bush out." That's the closest the McBride campaign gets to questioning Reno's appeal in the general election.

"We have a governor who hasn't listened to everybody, and he hasn't had room in his heart for everybody," McBride said. "I'm going to be able to take him (Bush) because I stand where most people in Florida stand."

Where McBride stands in the public's mind is a topic of increasing curiosity in both camps, and to the Republicans as well.

McBride supporters are encouraged by a statewide poll of 603 likely Democratic voters by Garin-Hart-Yang, the campaign's pollster. It shows McBride closing in on Reno, McBride advisers say, because of McBride's heavy exposure in TV ads and Republican Party ads attacking him.

The poll, conducted Aug. 17 to 19, shows Reno favored by 40 percent and McBride by 34 percent, with state Sen. Daryl Jones the choice of 6 percent. A Garin survey two weeks earlier had Reno leading McBride by 49 percent to 30 percent. The poll, paid for by McBride's campaign and used in part to raise money and motivate supporters, suggests major momentum for McBride.

McBride spokesman Alan Stonecipher said the shift shows much of Reno's early support was a reflection of her high name recognition and little else. He said the poll also shows that the GOP attacks on McBride have actually enhanced his credibility with hard-core Democrats, whose priority is seeing Bush defeated.

"They may have helped us," Stonecipher said. "We always said that if we could get McBride well-known enough, a lot of her soft positive support would peel off and go to McBride, and that's what's happening."

Reno aides said they are not worried.

Their candidate ate a lunch of stuffed shells with a venerable kingmaker of Broward politics, Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella, 84, a gravel-voiced former nightclub owner from Yonkers who directs a shrinking but still-potent pool of more than 7,000 retirees at Century Village in Deerfield Beach.

Until now he had avoided publicly endorsing either candidate. But after noshing with Reno, he said: "I'm here, aren't I? And I didn't come for the dinner." Then he posed for pictures alongside Reno and dismissed talk that Reno's "baggage" would result in another victory for Bush.

"All this b---s--- about baggage. Who in the world doesn't have baggage?" he asked. "You don't have baggage, you didn't live."

Reno and McBride traveled south just as viewers in South Florida, home to nearly one-third of Florida Democrats, are beginning to see a steady stream of their ads in the state's most expensive TV market.

But many voters are more preoccupied with the county's new touch screen machines, and by the startling discovery that because of redistricting, growth or both, their precincts have been relocated.

Miriam Oliphant, Broward's elections supervisor, forecast a turnout of 20 percent or higher, largely because of the "curiosity" over the county's new touch screen voting machines. But political veterans don't hear a buzz.

"There's no excitement at all about this primary," says Dan Reynolds, president of the Broward AFL-CIO and a McBride supporter, who just sent a letter to his 32,000 union members, urging them to vote for the Tampa lawyer.

"I don't expect a significant turnout," said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party. "People are not focused on the election."

One longtime political watcher in Broward said that the lack of fireworks in the field of Democratic candidates could be one reason more people aren't interested.

"If this were more of a rock 'em, sock 'em primary, you'd have more of a turnout," said Howard Forman, Broward's court clerk and a former state senator who supports McBride.

-- Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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