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Bush ready to take on either Democrat in November

adam smith
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By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

The pregame show is over, and Jeb Bush is now standing ready at the plate. For Democrats, it's like winding up against Barry Bonds.

As hard-fought as the Democrats' primary contest turned out to be, it was nothing compared to taking on the governor directly.

With two-thirds of the vote tallied Tuesday night, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride was leading former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. He was comfortably ahead throughout Central and North Florida, but the early results did not include critical Reno strongholds, Miami-Dade and Broward.

Whoever the nominee, the real debate starts Thursday, after today's 9/11 anniversary pause.

The questions now facing voters are simple: In his determination to trim Florida government, has Gov. Bush cut too deeply? Has he adequately funded schools and other services, or has he squandered years of flush budgets on corporate tax breaks? For all the criticism over schools, child protection and low-paying jobs, is Jeb Bush at least working effectively to put Florida in the right direction?

Bush's challenger has to overcome a big money disadvantage, define a vision for Florida and hit Bush so sharply on issues such as education that it overcomes voters' natural fondness for him.

McBride -- who shared Reno's platform of greater "investment" in Florida -- has spent the past year rewording Ronald Reagan's old question: "Are you better off after four years under this governor, and do you think you'll be better off four years from now under the same governor?"

Bush says he can't wait to answer, and he has mountains of money to get his message out. The state Republican Party, with help from the governor's brother in the White House, has raised more than $26-million, most of which is aimed at re-electing the governor. That's four times what the state Democratic Party has raised.

"Now I get a chance with one opponent to remind people what we have done over the last four years together," the governor said Tuesday. "We have worked hard to reform our government to make it more service-driven for the people of our state."

The governor will talk about crime declining. He'll point to a massive Everglades restoration project. As critics seize on the child protection failures in his administration, he'll note that he doubled child protection funding, just as he nearly doubled spending for the developmentally disabled.

Bush will talk about improving accountability at schools and scoff at critics who say he failed to increase education spending enough. He will ardently defend his tax cuts and point to other states such as California with far more severe budget problems.

"My opponent just doesn't get it," Bush said Tuesday morning. "I think they believe the size and scope of government is a definition of the success of the state. If we had not cut taxes, it would have been spent and when tough times came after Sept. 11, we'd have had a budget deficit the likes of which you wouldn't believe."

Bush has a personal appeal that seems to transcend issues. Education is overwhelmingly the top concern of Floridians, and polls have consistently shown Floridians skeptical about Bush's record on schools. But the polls also consistently show that Floridians generally like the governor, which may be the biggest obstacle of all for Democrats.

For all that, Jeb Bush is beatable.

There's a reason Democratic leaders have sounded increasingly optimistic, while the governor's campaign has looked more and more agitated, even targeting McBride during the primary.

Florida remains a politically divided state, and Democrats see a simple equation to beat Jeb Bush: Democrats energized to defeat Bush, plus enough independent and swing voters ready for a change.

What sealed Bush's 1998 victory was not so much winning more votes than the first time he ran in 1994, but in keeping Democratic turnout low. Democrats simply weren't fired up to defeat him in 1998.

In 1994, Bush received 2.07-million votes and narrowly lost to Gov. Lawton Chiles. Four years later, campaigning as a much more moderate Republican, he easily beat Buddy MacKay while receiving only 120,000 more votes than four years earlier. MacKay, meanwhile, received 362,000 fewer votes than Chiles did in 1998.

Now, after the 2000 election, after an affirmative action overhaul, after child protection disasters and sweeping civil service reforms, Democratic hopes for a strong turnout look plausible.

Fallout from Tuesday's messy primary remains a wild card. The biggest problems occurred in Miami-Dade, where the veteran elections supervisor was appointed by a Democratic mayor, and Broward, where the elected supervisor is a Democrat.

But count on some of the blame to be aimed at Bush, who has touted Florida's elections reforms. The governor himself predicted it Tuesday: "I'll be blamed -- that's the amazing part of this."

The main campaign begins now. For all of Bush's charisma, campaign money, and legislative successes he stands to have a real race on his hands.

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