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Suspense and drama over in governor's race

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002

Bill McBride has momentum. Or, to put it another way, Big Bill has Big Mo.

Bill McBride has momentum. Or, to put it another way, Big Bill has Big Mo.

Janet Reno's pickup-truck campaign began sputtering just as the finish line came into sight, but she's still truckin'. She hasn't canceled her post-election party with Elton John.

Daryl Jones, an African-American state senator, is a factor only to the extent that he takes votes away from Reno or McBride in a close election. But don't call him a spoiler. He is a credible candidate for statewide office.

With Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary two days away, the race has taken on an air of suspense and drama -- the very things that have been missing in this campaign until now. And there is something else in the air -- a feeling among Democrats that they would at least have a fighting chance against Gov. Jeb Bush if McBride can pull off an upset on Tuesday.

The latest surveys of Democratic voters show McBride running about even with Reno, who commanded a runaway lead in the polls until recently. McBride's supporters sense a stunning primary upset in the making, and maybe -- just maybe -- another stunning upset in November. Something is going on in Florida politics that nobody fully comprehends, and it could make for an interesting fall election.

Whether McBride's dramatic rise in the polls in the campaign's final lap will be enough to take him across the finish line ahead of Reno won't be known until the votes are counted. Despite McBride's late-breaking momentum, Reno can't be counted out. Her base is South Florida, the gold coast of Democratic voters. Turnout could be critical in a close election, and her strongest constituency, senior voters, tend to go to the trouble of voting when others find excuses to stay home.

Whatever the outcome, give McBride his due: He has run an effective campaign and connected with a lot of voters. He started with little name recognition and became the choice of the party establishment by default (after former Vietnam POW Pete Peterson and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis decided to pass). But he pushed ahead, ignoring discouraging poll numbers and the advice of the pundits, collecting labor union endorsements, building an organization, raising money, and focusing on what has become the central issue of this election year -- education.

Win or lose on Tuesday, Bill McBride's ambition to become governor of Florida is no longer an impossible dream. If he doesn't make it this year against Janet Reno, and she doesn't make it against Jeb Bush, McBride will still have a political future, if he wants one. This former corporate lawyer has established himself as a Democratic star in Florida politics, an overgrown barefoot boy in the Lawton Chiles tradition, and the man to beat in 2006, when Bush would complete his second and final term. The race would be wide open then, with no celebrity opponent in the primary or incumbent governor to challenge in the general election. The only thing that would hurt McBride's political future is if he won Tuesday's primary and then got buried in a Bush landslide.

McBride's attention and energy are understandably focused on winning this year. Four years must seem like forever to someone who believes the nomination is within his grasp on Tuesday. What has brought McBride from political obscurity to the brink of victory in the primary has been his success in convincing Democrats he has the best chance of defeating Bush and in making education -- the top concern of voters by far -- his signature issue. Reno came to the issue too late and with few specifics.

If McBride is the Democratic nominee and has his way, the November election will be a referendum on Bush's A-Plus education plan. Education is nearly always an issue in gubernatorial elections. But most political debates on education lack a simple issue that symbolizes the voters' concerns. Democrats believe Bush has given them just that. It's called FCAT, the controversial standardized test that the Bush administration uses to grade individual schools. The risk for McBride in the general election would be that he could come across as business-as-usual on education at a time when many Floridians are looking for school reform.

It's not hard to predict the Republican attack strategy if McBride becomes the Democratic nominee. Hey Bill, you're a liberal, the Republicans will say.

McBride has proposed an education plan that could have been written by the teachers' union -- more spending with less accountability. He has promised to restore affirmative action in college admissions and state contracting. He supports gay rights, abortion rights and has called for a moratorium on capital punishment. McBride also has dared to raise the issue of taxes. Well, sort of. He has proposed more than $1-billion in new taxes to finance his education plan. Half of it would come from a 50-cent a pack tax increase on cigarettes, the rest from closing tax loopholes he doesn't specify.

Can the Republicans get away with portraying McBride as another tax-and-spend liberal? Who knows? But you can bet they'll throw everything they have at him. If McBride wins his party's nomination, he had better brace himself for what's ahead.

This is McBride's first time out for elective office, and in many ways it shows. He can say some thoughtless things, like his statement that Bush's One Florida plan, which replaced state affirmative action, was the worst thing to happen to minorities since official segregation. And in his pursuit of endorsements, he has embraced some ethically challenged Democratic pols, including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. "Judge me by my friends," he said as he clasped Brown's hands. Ugh.

The Bush campaign last week accused McBride of giving different audiences different answers -- and it had documentation to back up the charge. McBride had better be careful -- and consistent. He may not think the small things matter in politics, but over time their cumulative impact can take a toll on his credibility. Just ask Al Gore.

McBride keeps saying he has sized up Jeb Bush and he knows he can take him in the general election. You have to admire his confidence. It would be a mistake for the Bush people to underestimate this former Marine who won a Bronze Star in Vietnam. And it would be a mistake for Democrats to underestimate Bush. Democrats have a habit of underestimating the Bushes.

McBride has yet to be tested in real political combat. In the primary campaign, the Democratic candidates engaged in a single debate that was all smiles and handshakes. Not a single blow was struck. There was not a single flash of passion about anything. Bush already has agreed to three debates in the fall campaign, a sign that he is eager to engage his Democratic challenger, whether it be Reno or McBride.

I'd rather risk my money in the stock market right now than to bet it on the outcome of Tuesday's primary or the Nov. 5 general election. As I said, something is stirring out there among the voters. I only wish I knew what it was.

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