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Bush's poise holds off McBride's final charge

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002


ORLANDO -- For 18 months Bill McBride has been pining to debate Jeb Bush one-on-one. Over and over, the first-time candidate predicted he would win the comparison between a governor born of privilege and the folksy ex-Marine vowing to fix Florida schools.

ORLANDO -- For 18 months Bill McBride has been pining to debate Jeb Bush one-on-one. Over and over, the first-time candidate predicted he would win the comparison between a governor born of privilege and the folksy ex-Marine vowing to fix Florida schools.

But McBride underestimated his opponent.

In their high-stakes, final televised debate Tuesday, Bush showed why he's poised to be the first Republican governor ever reelected in Florida.

Looking relaxed and confident, the governor calmly brushed off barbs by McBride and tossed them back without looking defensive or smug. Bush is the seasoned politician in this race, and it showed.

Still, this was no trouncing, either. McBride, yessir-ing Tim Russert, praising the president and aggressively challenging the governor's picture of Florida, held his own through much of the debate.

His vagueness at one point prompted laughter from the audience. But the Tampa lawyer never veered far from the message that has put him within striking distance of Bush: Florida is not prospering the way the governor claims, especially its public schools.

"If you think our economy is booming, if you think the public schools actually have been improved . . . then you should reelect the governor," McBride said in his closing statement.

Bush, smiling and looking straight into the camera, had the last word thanks to the luck of a coin toss: "I believe we're on the right track, but I know that there's work to do."

If McBride hoped this final faceoff would give him the big shove he needs to for the final two weeks of the campaign, he would have to be disappointed. The latest polls suggest he is still behind the governor and struggling to close the gap, and Bush turned in his strongest debate performance of the campaign.

The debate produced neither major gaffes nor big body blows.

McBride, with his quirky style of politeness and aggressiveness, repeatedly attacked the governor's record without looking shrill. He looked more intimidated by the celebrity journalist than by the governor of the country's fourth largest state.

His biography is McBride's best asset. So, to questions as far-ranging as gay adoptions to ballistic fingerprinting, McBride slipped in references to his military service or his roots in small-town Florida. Over and over again, he suggested Bush was saying things he knew to be false, and that the election is really about "trust."

He once again urged Bush to "raise your game," and insisted he would not say or do anything just to get elected, implying that Bush was doing just that.

McBride's eagerness to engage Bush produced some missteps. To a question about crime, McBride offered no specific solutions while accusing the governor of failing to listen to law enforcement. A bemused Bush noted that every major law enforcement group is endorsing him, and then ticked off three specific steps he would take if reelected, including targeting domestic violence.

To win, McBride needs to convert Bush supporters to his side and it's hard to see how he did that Tuesday night.

Without McBride hitting a home run, it could turn out that Bush effectively won his reelection Tuesday night.

But this is also the governor who has overwhelmingly outspent McBride, has the White House on his side, and still has a political novice breathing down his neck.

McBride's TV ad campaign is about to start getting competitive with Bush's, and both sides are mobilizing their get-out-the-vote forces. Whether or not Tuesday's debate swayed many of the few remaining undecided voters in this race, 13 days of campaigning is still a long time in a state as politically divided as Florida.

-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com.

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