Candidates abandon cordiality
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
ORLANDO -- In their last and liveliest face-to-face encounter in the race for governor, Jeb Bush and Bill McBride drew starkly different visions of Florida before a statewide TV audience Tuesday night, their disdain for each other more visible than ever.
Bush portrayed McBride's rookie political campaign as long on promises and short on details. McBride, meanwhile, suggested Bush thinks Florida is better off than it is and will say anything to get elected.
Viewers were treated to a long discussion of the popular and expensive class size amendment that has been a constant presence in the campaign. Moderator Tim Russert repeatedly pressed McBride to explain in detail where he would find the money to pay for the class size amendment. But McBride refused to be pinned down, offering only assurances that he would carry out the will of the voters.
For weeks, Bush has attacked McBride for being fuzzy on details. When Russert asked McBride to choose between price tags of $8-billion and $27-billion for the amendment, McBride said: "I think it's somewhere in between," prompting laughter in the audience.
"You should say which tax we're going to pay," Bush told McBride. "You ought to say which tax is going to go up."
"I have a very specific plan," McBride said, insisting that it's the most specific education platform any gubernatorial candidate has proposed in Florida's history.
Russert, however, pressed on. "Where? Where in that budget? Where will you take it from?" he asked McBride. "Environment? Law enforcement?"
"Out of the general fund, across the board," McBride said. "It's a priorities issue."
Bush opposes the amendment, and Russert did not press Bush to say how he would pay for it even though Bush would face the same burden if he wins on Nov. 5. Bush looked at Russert after he failed to pin down McBride and said, "You sense my frustration."
Bush's confidence and articulate grasp of the finer points of policy were on display from the start, and he called moderator Russert -- whom he had faced twice before in debates -- by his first name at least three times. As the hour ended, Bush talked about his "passion and conviction" while looking into the camera, making eye contact with the voters who will decide whether he will serve four more years.
"My first passion is education," Bush said. "I believe that we're on the right track, but I know there's work to do." Criticized at times for being arrogant, Bush "humbly" asked voters for another term.
Bush was contrite when called to account for the most embarrassing episode of his campaign, his reference to "devious plans" to avoid implementing the amendment. "There's no devious plan," Bush said. "I made a mistake saying it, and to be honest with you, I'm frustrated."
McBride on three occasions reminded viewers that his children attend public school and he worked in references to his military service. He voiced a willingness to make the election a referendum on Bush's record and nothing more.
"If you think public schools actually have improved -- and they haven't been -- then you should re-elect the governor," McBride said.
At one point, McBride and Bush turned openly antagonistic toward each other. It was the flashpoint of the debate, a discussion of inflammatory remarks made by a McBride supporter and talk radio host in Miami, the Rev. Victor Curry, who compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler.
"He called the leader of the free world a neo-Nazi," Bush said. McBride, the governor said, "should repudiate not just the words, but he should repudiate the man."
McBride said he condemnned Curry's words but he could not condemn the man, saying his religious beliefs prevented him from such a thing. He criticized Bush for wrongly suggesting he knew about Curry's comments when they were made on the radio because McBride said he first heard about them from a reporter afterward.
"It's wrong, and you know it's wrong. And you should be ashamed to bring up something like that," McBride said to Bush, who interjected that he was not suggesting McBride agreed with the remarks.
The debate setting, in the Pegasus Ballroom of the student union at the University of Central Florida, resembled the set of NBC's Meet the Press, where Russert holds court Sunday mornings. The veteran analyst proved well-prepared on a range of Florida issues from the gun show loophole to medical malpractice.
Every issue Russert raised brought opposing views from the men who want to be governor.
When Bush boasted that Florida's crime rate is at its lowest rate since 1972, McBride said Florida is still "one of the most violent states in the country." When Bush spoke of how Florida's economy is on solid ground, McBride said Bush frittered away a $3-billion surplus and faces a looming budget deficit.
When Bush warned that the class size issue on next month's ballot could force higher taxes, McBride said he would raise cigarette taxes and shift priorities to find the rest of the money needed.
When Bush said he supports the Florida law that bars gays from adopting children, McBride said: "It's wrong. It's discrimination."
When Bush endorsed the idea of capping jury awards for pain and suffering fees in medical malpractice cases, McBride, a lawyer, said Bush "castigates" groups in society.
"Trial lawyers are people," McBride said.
Bush seized every opportunity to recite groups that have endorsed his re-election, from 13 Democratic sheriffs to the Florida Nurses Association.
The dynamics of the long discussion of the class size amendment worked in Bush's favor by distancing himself from the costly amendment while supporting a more conservative approach to reducing class sizes.
The debate featured only one light moment. Russert asked each candidate what he admired most in his opponent.
McBride, answering first, didn't miss a beat. "I like his mom very much," he said of Barbara Bush, who was in the ballroom watching her son and laughed at the answer.
Said Bush, of McBride: "I admire his service to our country in the military."
That was as friendly as it got -- and it was the last question.
Bush, elected in 1998 after losing a close race against Lawton Chiles in 1994, is hoping to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in Florida history.
With two weeks to go, the race is close, but Bush remains ahead, with millions more to spend on TV advertising than McBride.
Bush has been hammering McBride with TV ads that suggest the Democrat would consider a state income tax to pay for his "big spending" programs, including the proposed constitutional amendment to force lower class sizes. McBride has proposed a 50-cent increase in cigarette taxes, and has said that only voters -- not a governor -- could levy an income tax.
Bush today heads into conservative Panhandle territory for a "Veterans for Jeb" breakfast in the town of Callaway. His mother will campaign for him in the state, and plans are taking shape for a return visit by his brother, President Bush.
McBride heads to Miami today to appear on a Haitian radio show, but most of the day will be devoted to raising money.
What they said
"The problem with this amendment is that it will diminish teacher quality. We don't have enough qualified teachers to fill all of those spots. We'll have more unqualified teachers . . . teaching our kids. The second problem is . . . it's the largest mandate in the state's history, it takes away all the innovation that can happen at the school-based level. This will be the organizing principle of schools. And thirdly, it will require a massive increase in taxes or cuts in other programs."
-- Bush on why he opposes a citizen initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot that caps class sizes.
"This is really a distinguishing feature between the governor and myself. It's important, governor, for you to sort of get straight with the people of Florida. For the last 31/2 years you've had an opportunity to reduce class sizes. They haven't been reduced . . . The governor needs to support a reduction in class sizes and he needs to do so with as much strength and as much character and integrity as he possibly can. Parents know that class sizes are important to their child's well being . . .
-- McBride on why he supports the class size initiative.
"He should repudiate not just the words but he should repudiate the man, who not only said it as Mr. McBride was approaching the radio station but then he said it two days later just to make sure everybody heard him right . . ."
-- Bush on a Miami talk radio host and McBride supporter who compared President George W. Bush to Hitler and neo-Nazis.
"Governor, really, you need to raise your game. You are now suggesting that those comments are anything I believe in. You know better than that . . . But you just did . . . You also suggested I heard those comments, which I hadn't . . . Those comments were bad comments and anyone knows that they are bad comments . . . You should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting otherwise."
-- McBride's response to Bush's criticism of his handling of the radio host's remarks.
"Sometimes, Tim, there's a convergence of good politics and good policy. I've taken advantage of that . . . We've gotten this not because my brother is the president of the United States, but because we've worked hard to achieve it. Florida is an important state."
-- Bush on criticism that President Bush has been trying to help his brother's reelection campaign by favoring policies and federal funding that help Florida.
"Florida is still one of the most violent states in the country . . . To take credit for a national effort I think is just the wrong approach . . . A lot of the people in Florida don't feel safe and don't feel comfortable . . . I would spend a lot more of our efforts supporting local law enforcement officials . . . I would put a lot more effort into doing that . . . This governor is trying to take credit for something that quite frankly he had very little to do with."
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From the Times state desk
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