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    Reno silent as lead narrows

    By ADAM C. SMITH and STEVE BOUSQUET
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 2, 2002

    LAKELAND -- Suddenly, Janet Reno was facing questions she never hoped to hear.

    As two new independent polls showed her once-commanding lead over Bill McBride has largely evaporated, a TV news cameraman zeroed in on Reno Sunday, eager for a snappy sound-bite explanation.

    What's it going to take for you to win the Sept. 10 primary? "Votes," Reno said. Then, silence.

    Do you have a plan to hold off the surging Bill McBride? "Yes," Reno said. More silence. A new plan? she was asked. "No."

    The former U.S. attorney general, renowned for her straight talk, had offered little more than dead air to a cameraman asking the same question many Democrats are asking: What happened?

    Between stops at black churches from Orlando to Zephyrhills, Reno brushed off questions about how she lost her status as the clear favorite to a rival most Democrats had never heard of until his face began appearing on TV in July.

    The answer, according to a poll of 500 likely Democratic voters conducted for the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald, is that Reno's support has stayed flat since spring, while McBride has made himself well-known thanks to $4.5-million of TV advertising. And McBride has seized education -- the top concern of most Democrats -- as his key issue.

    The poll showed Reno leading 40 percent to 38 percent with state Sen. Daryl Jones at 9 percent. A separate poll for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel showed her ahead of McBride by 37 percent to 34 percent with 11 percent for Jones.

    While Reno worked the Interstate 4 corridor that is a McBride stronghold, he went to her strongest area, South Florida.

    Energized by the new polls, McBride campaigned as though Reno did not exist. At his only stop, a picnic for 200 union members in West Palm Beach, McBride's mind was on the big prize: Gov. Jeb Bush.

    As driving rain and thunder forced technicians to unplug a sound system, McBride stood atop a picnic table and shouted a stump speech.

    "I want you to work nine days really hard," McBride said. "If you get me in the general election, I'll beat Bush and we'll change the course of Florida history together."

    McBride talked about his eagerness to confront Bush in a debate, and being the only candidate who grew up and went to school in Florida, served in the military and has children attending Florida schools and parents who live in the state.

    "I'm the only candidate that's really had personal experience with the FCAT and this absurd grading system, and I'm going to change it," McBride said to cheers and whistles.

    With polls showing Democrats divided along geographic and demographic lines, the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote effort could win. Reno is working to turn out African-American voters. The Times/Herald poll showed 51 percent of black Democrats favoring Reno, 20 percent for McBride and 15 percent for Jones.

    As McBride tightened his focus on Bush, Republicans launched a new TV ad criticizing the Tampa attorney's record at the Holland & Knight law firm.

    An earlier GOP ad, criticizing McBride for "reckless management" at the firm, is credited by McBride with helping him gain ground by boosting his name recognition and legitimizing him as a serious challenger to Bush.

    McBride called the latest ad "half-truth stuff" and said, "The governor should be talking about public schools." McBride called the health care plan for Holland & Knight employees, "one of the best in America" and said he has still not seen the 1992 article in American Lawyer magazine that forms the basis for the Republican ad.

    McBride declined to comment on the ad's claims in detail. "I'm not going to address it. Go talk to Holland & Knight about it," McBride said.

    Republican Party spokesman Towson Fraser said the GOP is not worried that the new ad might also help McBride. "Before we did anything, we looked at it from all angles," Fraser said. "We want to make sure people have a better picture of who he is."

    McBride got some more good news Sunday with newspaper endorsements, including one from the Herald, Reno's hometown paper. Reno won the endorsement of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which brings the tally to one large newspaper endorsement for Reno and 10 for McBride.

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