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Another Florida election

Bill McBride's unorthodox campaign demolished all the early assumptions about the Democratic race for governor.

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- If the Legislature had left well enough alone, Janet Reno would still be in the governor's race without regard to any recount. The Democratic nomination would still be hers to lose. Missing votes in Miami-Dade or Broward wouldn't matter, other than as a warning to avert more such foul-ups in the decisive runoff primary just ahead.

But there is to be no runoff primary, unlike every election schedule since 1932. The Legislature suspended it last year in the course of attempting to reform voting procedures so that what happened in the presidential election wouldn't happen again.

Democrats protested that their greatest heroes -- Govs. LeRoy Collins, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and Lawton Chiles, who was U.S. senator and then governor -- would have been also-rans without the runoff. But when it was offered in the Senate to keep the runoff by advancing the first primary to August, there were no takers.

That Florida is having another seriocomic election debacle anyway is only the lesser irony at hand.

The larger one is that Bill McBride rather than Reno is (as of this writing, anyway) the apparent Democratic nominee. Though the Republican legislative rulers might be denying it now, their decision to suspend the runoff was intended at least in part to saddle the Democrats with a candidate who could be tarred as liberal and sectional and who, having been rejected by a large majority of the party's voters, might be seen to represent the Democratic "fringe."

At least eight Democrats were acknowledged as potential candidates at that point, including McBride, State Sen. Daryl Jones, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and former Rep. Pete Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. Reno wasn't one of them, though it is noteworthy that she floated her interest just two weeks after passage of the election bill that Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan rashly predicted "will make us a model for the nation."

The more interest that Reno showed, the less there remained on the part of the others. Eventually only Jones, McBride and Reno were left. As McBride overcame Reno's huge initial lead in the public opinion polls, Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP began airing ads attacking not the two of them but only McBride. It was Florida's first-ever meddling in one party's primary by another.

That didn't just confirm that Bush feared McBride more than Reno, which was precisely the point McBride was trying to make with Democratic voters. It also made it less plausible for the Republicans to pretend that suspending the runoff was simply in the interest of election supervisors and overseas absentee voters.

Even so, the GOP grand strategy nearly worked to perfection and clearly succeeded in part. It failed notably -- but only by less than 1 percent of the vote, as of this writing -- at giving them the sort of Democratic foe they thought they wanted.

McBride is their worst dream come true: a "new face," unassailable on patriotism as a combat-decorated Marine, and happily without any legislative record vulnerable to opposition research. As for McBride's lack of government experience, Bush dare not make an issue of that; he had none of his own, apart from a short term as Gov. Bob Martinez's commerce secretary -- a position that has since been abolished -- before winning Florida's top job four years ago.

What the Republicans did get is a Democratic Party that appears superficially to be sharply divided along ideological, regional and racial lines. Reno led in only nine counties, seven of them clustered in the relatively liberal southeast corner of the state, and she had clear majorities in only five. McBride not only led in the other 58 counties, but had clear majorities in 49 of them. Had Jones followed Lois Frankel out of the race, Reno probably would have won the primary despite McBride's impressive campaign surge. In a runoff with Jones out of the way, she would be favored to win.

"Yes," says Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "She did extremely well in African-American precincts."

That Reno and Jones split the same constituency is beyond argument; he fared poorest, in percentage terms, where she ran strongest. The lion's share of the 156,358 votes he polled statewide would have been hers. The 13,676 Jones drew just in Miami-Dade, their home county (where he polled two points less than his statewide average) would have been enough to put her over the top.

That circumstance is one reason McBride would have to think long and carefully before pressing Jones into service as his running mate. People prone to believe conspiracy theories might see it as a payoff to Jones. GOP chairman Al Cardenas is already playing to that sick mind-set by accusing the Democrats of overtly using Jones to sabotage Reno. It was a low blow, lower even (but not by much) than the Democrats' fatuous attempt to blame Bush for local mismanagement by Democratic election officers in Broward and Miami-Dade.

McBride's immediate problem is to get past the missing vote problems in Broward and Miami-Dade. His next and biggest challenge would be to select a running mate, which he would have to do by 5 p.m. Thursday.

The temptation will be strong to have someone from southeast Florida, where Reno ran so strongly. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas would be an obvious choice but for the fact that the election debacle was his ultimate responsibility; the elections supervisor, David Leahy, works for the county manager, who is Penelas' appointee. Another problem: Many Democrats still resent Penelas for talking a walk during the presidential dispute. Says Frankel, "A lot of us believe he prevented the recount in 2000 in Miami."

It is not at all certain that McBride needs to balance his ticket geographically. Reno owed her huge Gold Coast margins to the Florida Democratic Party's most dedicated partisans, and their affection for Reno pales beside their disaffection for Bush.

"I don't think he's going to have a problem with that," says Frankel, the retiring House minority leader who's now running for mayor of West Palm Beach. "People who voted for Reno are definitely not going to vote for Bush. I think Bill will be in very good shape."

She added, however, that McBride "has got to pick a running mate that reaches out to a diverse group of people."

"That is the most solidly Democratic part of the state," notes Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida and chair of the Florida Elections Commission. "The voters are older; the older you get, the more partisan they become. It would be easier for him (McBride) to get her voters than vice versa."

McBride's short list is closely held. Sheriff Nat Glover of Jacksonville is one of the more intriguing names known to be on it. He's an African-American who has twice been elected by a majority white constituency and would be a shoo-in for re-election again if he weren't term-limited.

But the name that has McBride insiders tingling with excitement is that of a Republican, Bob Milligan, the retiring state comptroller, who virtually endorsed McBride in the Democratic primary in a Sept. 3 statement that said, "I have a great deal of respect for what he's doing." Though Milligan also professed high regard for Bush, he did not rule out supporting McBride in the general election, too.

It is a long shot, of course, that Milligan would jump ship so far as to actually run with McBride. Moreover, McBride is already strong in the Panhandle, thanks in part to the same retired military voter base that had GOP leaders begging Milligan to run for Congress. But in the continuing battle for swing votes elsewhere, McBride could not do better than to offer voters a Republican lieutenant governor with a stellar record for demanding and getting efficiency in state government and attacking fraud and waste, and a reputation as the least partisan officeholder in Tallahassee.

What makes the pairing plausible is that among Marines -- McBride was a captain in Vietnam and Milligan retired as a lieutenant general -- esprit de corps trumps politics. Milligan demonstrated that when he recruited former state Rep. Art Simon, who had run unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for the job Milligan won, to head his banking division.

Such speculation is a maddening exercise. But at least it has no more than four more days to go.

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