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Democrats must look for pay dirt in Palatka

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 21, 2002

It was an unlikely setting for a civics lesson.

It was an unlikely setting for a civics lesson.

On the banks of the St. Johns River in Palatka sits a Holiday Inn that was the scene of an important lesson on how Florida elections are won and lost.

One day in 1986, a campaign bus pulled up.

Out spilled one Democrat after another, every one supporting the Republican candidate for governor, Bob Martinez. A nasty Democratic runoff had ended with one man standing -- barely. He was Steve Pajcic, a House member from Jacksonville with an Ivy League resume and some liberal votes that were hard to explain in North Florida.

Democrats liked the alternative. Martinez was a new face on the scene, a pro-business mayor of the booming city of Tampa. He didn't have any annoying votes to explain, and he benefited greatly from a divided opposition party.

Martinez played well in Palatka. He took Putnam County and almost every other county north of Interstate 4. He was at the forefront of a trend of conservative North Florida Democrats voting Republican, not only in presidential elections as they have for decades, but in statewide races.

Well, they like Jeb Bush in Palatka, too. A big crowd with a band and lots of kids waited for him one recent afternoon outside the San Mateo seafood restaurant.

Bush is counting on Palatkans to help him win a second term. But, like Pajcic in 1986, Bush has a record to defend, and like Martinez 16 years ago, Democrat Bill McBride is the newcomer, the fresh face from Tampa.

Unlike the 1986 election, Democrats are united this year in a way they haven't been in recent statewide elections. And what do people in Palatka think of McBride?

The only evidence is the vote in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. The answer: They like him a lot. In fact, North Florida played an important role in McBride's close victory over Janet Reno and Daryl Jones. He carried most counties there by large margins, with Duval and Marion the only exceptions.

The turnout was good, too. More than 10,000 Putnam County Democrats voted last week, compared with the 7,800 votes Buddy MacKay got there in 1998 when he lost badly to Bush. Some Democrats hope that the turnout and the vote for McBride in a three-way race are signs that conservative Democrats see McBride as mainstream and are willing to come home in November.

It's too soon to tell. Besides, Bush has Democratic support.

He held a "Democrats for Jeb" event in Miami on Friday, and 13 Democratic sheriffs, most from small North Florida counties, support his re-election. Many of them stood in uniform alongside Bush at a news conference Wednesday, praising him for tougher sentencing laws and better pension benefits for police officers.

"Sheriffs are the top cops in their counties," Bush said. "But they're also, in all cases, pretty good politicians, too. They have to get elected."

Republicans have developed a surefire way to convert Democratic votes across North Florida: Call the opponent a liberal until it sticks to him like a wool sweater at a Labor Day picnic.

"It's been disastrous for us here in North Florida," said Martha Pace, Putnam County's Democratic Party chairwoman, a veteran of those '70s, '80s and '90s races.

But this year, with this nominee, she's more optimistic.

Bush and his party call McBride a tax-and-spend liberal who makes vague promises that Floridians can't possibly afford. If the label sticks, Democrats can get a head start on 2006.

Will McBride play in Palatka when Jeb Bush is the alternative?

The answer to that question will say a lot about who will be the next governor of Florida.

-- Steve Bousquet is deputy chief of the Times' Tallahassee bureau.

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