McBride quietly gets rolling
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Republican Gov. Jeb Bush has put him on the defensive with a steady barrage of criticism.
His public schedule has been conspicuously light.
He has been forced to spend considerable time introducing himself to much of Florida's African-American community, a key part of the Democratic base. And activists in South Florida, the state's Democratic stronghold, complain he isn't paying them enough attention.
But Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer and first-time candidate, betrays no worry. As in his upset victory last month over Janet Reno, he says he has a plan, and he simply aims to follow it.
Whatever momentum McBride carried into the Sept. 10 primary stalled, because the final results were in doubt until Reno conceded one week later. That was one week in which McBride couldn't raise much money, couldn't advertise, couldn't court Reno's sizable base of support.
Republicans were surprised his first post-primary commercial, touting his middle-class upbringing and his service in the Vietnam War, didn't air until a full week after that.
Now, with 33 days before the Nov. 5 election, campaign officials and Democratic foot soldiers insist the momentum is back, despite some signs to the contrary.
McBride's campaign also is trying to evolve into one capable of carrying a general election in the nation's fourth-largest state.
McBride has hired a new campaign manager, and the number of staffers and volunteers working out of the campaign's Tampa headquarters has doubled in the past two weeks. They include strategists from organized labor, the Florida Democratic Party and two key Reno refugees -- her former campaign manager, Mo Elleithee, who will focus on South Florida, and her African-American outreach coordinator, James Harris.
Supporters from Tampa Bay to South Florida acknowledge that the campaign has been less public in recent weeks, but they say that's the result of internal reorganization and planning.
McBride's strategy against Reno was marked by focus: Rather than spending his time chasing every Democratic vote in South Florida, where Reno was most popular, he concentrated on central and northern Florida, where he was reasonably assured of making inroads.
In July, when supporters became jittery about his lack of name recognition, McBride held off on TV advertising until he had enough money for a sustained ad blitz.
He seems to be acting with similar restraint now. Rather than barnstorming the state, McBride spent most of last week preparing for the debate. This week he's focusing on raising the money he'll need for more TV ads.
As of late yesterday, McBride had raised about $800,000 in the past two weeks.
And while typically the challenger dogs the incumbent, in this race it's Bush who has attacked at every chance.
"I look at it as understanding what your strategy is ... and what your focus has to be to win, and then sticking to it," said Cathy Kelly, McBride's new campaign manager, the longtime political director of the Florida Education Association who was chosen to ensure that focus.
"Not that you don't constantly measure whether you're accomplishing what you have to accomplish," and reacting accordingly, Kelly said.
On Wednesday, McBride met with black ministers in Jacksonville, then traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with union leaders. Tonight he has two fundraisers in Miami. On Oct. 18, McBride will join former President Clinton in New York City for a luncheon to raise money for the state party.
Bush continued his offensive Wednesday, saying McBride's desire to change the school grading system the governor created would cost the state $500-million a year in federal education money.
McBride has said he supports higher standards but calls the school grades, based entirely on FCAT scores, "punitive." The test alone should not be used to grade schools, he said.
The governor produced a letter from a federal education undersecretary saying that "if a school's reading and math scores to not meet state-established goals, that school must be identified as failing to make adequate yearly progress," and that would cost funding.
McBride decried that assertion as "ridiculous," noting the law requiring school standards is flexible. But it showed the governor's determination to hit McBride, Kelly said. "I think they're doing that in order to get us off our game plan."
There are signs that McBride is expanding his focus beyond education. As the Bush campaign has criticized McBride for being driven by that single issue, McBride has begun to talk more about expanding economic opportunity for all Floridians. On Tuesday he toured a high-tech firm in Orlando to underscore his desire to recruit high-paying jobs.
Steve Gordon, a St. Petersburg businessman and environmentalist, said he's helping McBride craft an environmental policy now. "Even though education is his top goal, we're trying to get the word out that he is concerned about other issues," he said.
Percy Johnson, a black Democratic activist in Fort Lauderdale who supported Reno, said he fears McBride is wasting too much time before reaching Reno supporters in South Florida.
His view is not uncommon among Democrats there, although on Wednesday Reno spent 45 minutes on a hot Broward County street corner, waving McBride signs with his running mate, Tom Rossin.
"He's behind. He needs to close links," Johnson said. "At the rate they're going, Jeb is going to try to run circles."
-- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.
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