They keep coming back to education
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
McBride repeatedly asserted that Bush is out of touch with average Floridians, while Bush stressed that McBride relies on failed ideas of the past.
Yet the two remained civil to each other and spent much of the debate smiling even as they criticized each others records.
Bush spoke with pride of his four-year record on education, job creation, crime prevention and the environment, conceding only that traffic is "horrible." He described McBride as pushing high taxes and big government, a captive of "union bosses" who want to go back to the "old ways."
McBride, the newcomer, quickly laid out a strategy to convince voters the state is on the decline. He portrayed Bush as so out of touch with problems facing Florida that he's "almost on another planet."
From high student dropout rates to low teacher salaries, McBride said Florida schools are in "crisis" and its teacher pay is a "national disgrace."
"We're talking about two different Floridas," McBride said.
Education is the central issue in this campaign, and it loomed large in the first of three debates between the first-term governor and the lawyer from Tampa. They disagreed most fervently on a a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot that would force the state to reduce class sizes.
Bush is fervently opposed while McBride favors it, though he hasn't detailed how he would pay for it.
Questions from average Floridians touched on myriad topics, but the candidates kept returning to education, which polls show is the overwhelming issue of Florida voters. Bush gave no quarter in defending the use of the FCAT to measure learning and force accountability of schools. McBride, meanwhile, called Bush's use of the FCAT to grade schools "absurd."
"I believe in high standards and high expectations and assessments," Bush said, noting a rise in the number of black fourth-graders who read at a fourth-grade level. "We don't tolerate mediocrity."
McBride said the $3-billion Bush says he has pumped into schools has barely kept pace with inflation and a surge in student enrollment.
"This governor should level with the people of Florida," McBride said. "We're not doing better. . . . Our schools are in crisis."
Bush said McBride's opposition to the FCAT would put Florida at risk of losing $2.5-billion over five years because federal legislation ties that money to the use of standardized tests. McBride countered that he is not opposed to standardized tests but to Bush's reliance on them as the sole factor to judge how schools are performing. McBride said the FCAT should be used for "diagnostic" purposes only, not to determine grades.
McBride, hands gesturing and smiling even as he attacked Bush's record, tried to seize the moral high ground on education by speaking as a parent of two public school students. He accused Bush of belatedly coming up with a $2.8-billion school construction plan because it is wildly popular with voters.
Citing his Marine background, McBride said: "Leadership is about taking responsibility early. It's about building consensus, not following it."
Bush said McBride's "big promises," especially his support for the class-size reduction amendment, will only mean higher taxes.
"Real leadership is about making tough choices, and standing on leadership," Bush said. "You haven't always agreed with me. I know that. But you know where I stand."
As the incumbent, Bush at times showed a surer grasp of details. In response to a question about hate crimes, McBride gave a fuzzy answer about treating everyone equally, while Bush spoke with specifics about visiting a Muslim mosque in Pinellas County.
The first debate was a bigger test for McBride, because he is not yet well known among many voters. For months, McBride spoiled for a one-on-one meeting with Bush. "Bring it on," the ex-football player said.
In Studio B of WJXT in Jacksonville, he got his chance, and urged Bush to join him in even more debates.
McBride likened Bush to a fruit picker he knew as a youth who worked hard only when he knew the boss was watching. Now "the big boss," the voters, are watching Bush, McBride said, "and he's scrambling. It's a transformation of enormous magnitude."
The first of three encounters between Bush and McBride signaled the start of the main event, matching the brother of the president against a newcomer who emerged with help from labor unions and the Democratic Party.
Bush, who holds a single-digit lead over McBride in early polls, is a battle-tested debater who is at ease in front of cameras. He showed a command of statistics and percentages on how the state is doing, though some advisers worried that Bush's wonkish nature might take over and make him sound more like a computer than a visionary. Numbers don't make good TV.
To Bush, McBride's lack of specifics was finally exposed to voters statewide. "I didn't hear a specific proposal from Bill, and that's been par for the course in this election," Bush said.
For all the differences that surfaced, the debate lacked a "he-coon moment."
There was no flashpoint as in 1994 when an upstart Bush, running for the first time against an icon, was put down by a much older Gov. Lawton Chiles.
"The ol' he-coon walks just before the light of day," Chiles told his younger rival, cryptically warning the ambitious Bush against overconfidence.
Bush is convinced that his A-plus plan, with its school grades and vouchers for twice-failing schools and money for schools that do better, is the right solution for a system long mired in mediocrity and sees the class-size amendment as a "one-size-fits-all" solution by liberal Democrats.
McBride, who got this far with a huge financial push from the state teachers union, promises to pay raises of $2,500 to teachers. His financing plan includes a 50-cent-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes and new taxes on products and services that are now exempt. Bush opposes any tax increases.
Friday's face-off was the first of three live encounters between Bush and McBride. They will meet on radio Oct. 15 in Orlando and on a statewide TV debate Oct. 22, also from Orlando.
Excerpts from the debate
"When the boss came around he'd jump down out of the tree and pick up all his fruit. I sort of sense that with the changes with the governor. The big boss is coming on Nov. 5 and now he's kind of scrambling, he's going to improve public education and improve the Department of Children and Families."
-- McBride on Bush's leadership, harkening to his days picking oranges. He likened Bush to a coworker who was always dropping fruit.
* * *
"We've fulfilled our commitment, but this is a tough, tough job."
-- Bush noting that he has doubled spending for the Department of Children and Families and that fewer children are in foster care.
* * *
"If you can't read, you're not going to do well on the FCAT. Teachers all across this state are teaching kids as they did before, but now there's accountability, now there's more attention and focus especially on the kids who have been left behind."
-- Bush defending his use of standardized tests to grade public schools.
* * *
"The way to do that is to give people hope . . . so they can take advantage of a good job, with high-paying wages."
-- McBride on reducing crime.
* * *
"Six hundred-thousand new jobs have been created in the last four years, and this year alone Florida has led the nation in job growth."
-- Bush on his handling of the economy.
* * *
"We've got one of the lowest wage economies in America, and it's getting worse. Per capita income, it's been going down. There's people working one, two and three jobs just to make ends meet. . . . It's almost as if the governor is on another planet."
-- McBride on Bush's contention that Florida's economy is robust.
* * *
"There's only two things that can happen -- you're going to have to have your taxes raised, or you're going to have to cut other services."
-- Bush on the effect of an amendment requiring smaller classes in public schools.
* * *
"The system will control him. He's had great support from the union bosses but that's not what's going to improve the quality of education in this state."
-- Bush on McBride's support from the Florida Education Association.
* * *
"They're not bosses. They're people that are trying to help our child."
-- McBride's response.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire