Another Florida election in doubt
By WES ALLISON and STEVE BOUSQUET
TAMPA -- Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer virtually unknown by most Floridians just six months ago, clung to a healthy but uncertain lead for the Democratic nomination for governor early today, hoping for a historic upset over Janet Reno that would pit him against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush in November.
But even as McBride led comfortably in most of Central and North Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, not all of the votes in Reno's stronghold of South Florida had been counted. State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami also was faring better than expected, though still lagging far behind.
McBride stayed upstairs in his hotel suite at the Marriott Westshore in Tampa throughout most of the evening as the returns came in, leaving his wife to work the crowd and sit for TV interviews.
About 12:30 a.m., McBride addressed the cheering crowd but wasn't ready to claim victory.
"I can't predict where we're going to end up," McBride said. "We tried so hard to do the right thing. This campaign came out of nowhere."
Reno, who pledged her support if McBride won, wasn't ready to concede, especially after widespread voting problems in South Florida. Shortly before midnight, she addressed hundreds of screaming fans at the Sheraton Bal Harbour on Miami Beach.
"The returns are coming in. It looks like its going to be a long night," said Reno, the former U.S. attorney general. "But I just had to come down and say thank you... and we're on to victory tonight."
Now Reno must decide whether to use the courts to contest the result of the election. Reno aides declined to address that subject late Tuesday night, but campaign manager Mo Elleithee said: "All options are on the table."
Throughout the night, McBride supporters cheered as a large television screen showed their candidate with a sizeable lead. But cheering softened about 11:30 p.m. as McBride's share of votes slipped below 50 percent as Broward and Miami-Dade returns began to appear.
"We knew Dade was going to be tough," said Shirley Merlin West, campaign coordinator for Dade.
McBride talked confidently Tuesday afternoon, promising he would continue to run a positive campaign against Bush.
Earlier in the day, hundreds of voters in Miami-Dade and Broward counties were turned away because polls weren't open or new voting machines weren't ready. Then it rained, flooding streets across the region.
Of Florida's 3.9-million registered Democrats, 900,000 live in Miami-Dade and Broward. Reno herself was forced to wait 20 minutes because the voting machines weren't ready when she showed up at her polling place at 7 a.m.
As reports of problems mounted, Reno faced the prospect of hundreds of would-be votes vanishing in counties where she enjoys broad support. She spent much of the day conferring with her attorneys, and remained in close contact with state elections officials through the night.
The voting troubles capped the hottest primary race for governor since 1986, when Democrat Steve Pajcic defeated Jim Smith, the current secretary of state, by 1 percent of the vote. In that race, too, polls in Leon County were ordered to stay open two hours later because of problems with voting machines.
McBride, 57, is the former managing partner of Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm, and a longtime community leader. But he had never run for political office, and beating Reno -- a national celebrity -- would demonstrate his campaign's organization and his personal ability to convince a broad spectrum of Democrats to believe in him.
As recently as April, polls showed him trailing Reno by nearly 30 percentage points. That began to change in August when his campaign launched a sustained TV advertising blitz financed largely by the state teachers union and the Democratic Party.
Throughout his 14-month campaign, McBride rode two messages: Bush has been bad for Florida's public schools, and McBride will fix them; and he, not Reno, has the best chance of beating Bush.
As a Vietnam veteran and businessman, McBride argued he has the credentials needed to attract moderate voters and win in November.
Democrats listened, even in South Florida retirement complexes where Reno hoped to dominate.
"I think Reno's good, but I don't think she has a chance. That's why I'm voting for McBride," said Eleanor Wollman of Century Village in Deerfield Beach, a sprawling retirement complex where McBride made his last campaign stop
Since beginning her campaign with her "Red Truck Tour" of Florida in February, Reno, 64, ran a down-home campaign that complemented her down-home image and rode largely on her fame.
She relied on a minimal amount of television advertising, counting instead on personal encounters with thousands of voters as she toured the state in her red pickup truck. Her campaign was so sure of victory two months ago that it booked Elton John to play a $500-per-ticket fund-raiser at the Signature Grand Hotel in Davie a week from today.
He got that boost largely from TV ads -- his own, pushing his education plan, and those aired by Bush and the state Republican Party, which sought to portray him as a corporate lawyer with a reckless management record.
McBride also out-raised Reno, $3.1-million to $2.5-million, including state matching funds. The total amount spent on his campaign, including the ads bought by the teachers union and the Democratic Party, reached $7.1-million.
Reno's campaign spending totaled about $3.5-million. She relied on much less support from the Democratic Party than McBride did.
Earlier Tuesday, McBride challenged Bush to join him in a statewide debating tour.
"Get rid of the handlers, get rid of the blow-dries, get rid of the 30-second ads," McBride said. "I've said all along this isn't about him personally -- he's probably a good guy. He just has a bad plan."
-- Staff Writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report
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From the Times state desk
Adam C. Smith
From the state wire