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To get to Tallahassee, you have to travel I-4

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


The first campaign I covered in Florida occurred in 1986. Bob Martinez, the mayor of Tampa who switched from Democrat to Republican in the great wave of Democratic defections in the South, was running for governor.

People thought he was nuts.

He was Latin. The state was still presumed to be rock solid Democratic. We'd had one Republican governor in 100 years. And who had ever heard of Tampa? The only place in Florida that mattered was Miami, as any Don Johnson fan would tell you.

Martinez won. He was a one-term governor, but his election signaled the beginning of great change in the way Florida politics was played.

The Democrats had lost their lock on the state.

And suddenly, Central Florida mattered.

Today, politicians and their handlers will tell you: You want to win statewide? You have to win Central Florida. The state can no longer be counted on to go the way South Florida goes.

Janet Reno must have known this. But she couldn't deliver. Reno appears to have lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Bill McBride, and it was because she could barely extend her reach beyond South Florida, which she carried. That red pickup truck she campaigned in was supposed to be a folksy touch. But it showed instead how out of touch Reno was.

The election was another demonstration of what has become received wisdom to people in politics. Tampa Bay is particularly key. It has the biggest population in the region. We're also the state's largest television market. Fully one-fourth of the state's voters live here.

The message, said one Democratic pollster, David Beattie, is, "Win in Tampa Bay, or lose. It's quite simple."

It would be true even if we hadn't just witnessed another squeaker of a race, in which the winner had a margin of six-tenths of a percent: If you're in Tampa Bay, your vote carries more weight than any other in the state.

"The I-4 corridor is a cross-section" of the country, says Kevin Hill, an associate professor of politics at FIU. "It's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it's not dominated by anybody."

This is why political experts from around the country like to observe what happens here, Hill said. Our region is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

It's far less urban than South Florida, far less allied with one political party, and more of a mix of city, suburb and rural areas.

You can easily see where these facts might work to the advantage of Bill McBride.

He is less well-known and will be less well-financed than Gov. Jeb Bush. But McBride was raised in Leesburg, lives in Thonotosassa, built his career in Tampa. He is Central Florida from his toes to the top of his head.

What disadvantage Bush has, he makes up for in the power of incumbency, in campaign money, and in support in places like the Panhandle and southwest Florida, and among the Cubans who vote Republican in South Florida.

"A statewide Republican candidate is always going to lose in South Florida," professor Hill said. "It's a question of how much. Jeb Bush won Dade County barely (in the last election) and lost Broward."

That leaves our region as the main battleground between now and November. The TV ads, the candidate visits -- you might come to think that the campaign for the hearts and minds of Tampa Bay as overkill. Try thinking instead that you're being wooed by an overly anxious suitor. You are.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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