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Peer into Pinellas Precinct's crystal ball

Precinct 610 in Clearwater generally votes as the state does. So which way are they leaning on the governor's race?

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 24, 2002


Precinct 610 in Clearwater generally votes as the state does. So which way are they leaning on the governor's race?

CLEARWATER -- Imagine a satellite deep in space peering down on America's toughest political battlegrounds.

It would focus first on Florida, home of the deadlocked 2000 presidential election. It then zooms in on Central Florida, then Pinellas County, where Democrat Al Gore won in 2000 and Republican Jeb Bush won in 1998. Finally, it tightens in on a tan-and-white ranch home on Sue Drive, where Mike and Moriah Rocha are spending part of this sunny Sunday talking about the governor's race.

"I normally vote Republican because I want to help the tax situation for small businesses, but I'm very curious about Bill McBride and what he would do for schools," said Mike Rocha, a clean-cut 31-year-old graphic artist who worries about Florida schools.

Moriah Rocha is registered to vote with no party affiliation, but leans Democrat. The couple's son is doing well in sixth grade, but they know teachers and parents are bitterly upset about what's happening in their schools under Bush.

"The funding may be there like Bush says, but if so, somebody's dropping the ball in placing the money," Mrs. Rocha said. "But I don't know enough about McBride and his track record to make a decision yet."

If Jeb Bush and Bill McBride want to reach the hearts and minds of Florida voters, they could hit the Rochas' neighborhood. Here, amid mature oaks shading 1,500-square-foot ranch homes and driveways sprinkled with basketball goals and boats atop trailers, Florida elections are won and lost.

And here conversations with voters offer a hint of how a governor who once seemed a shoo-in for re-election finds himself in a tight race with an untested and largely unknown challenger. How these voters make up their minds in the coming 12 days will decide who lives in the Governor's Mansion.

This is Pinellas voting Precinct 610, a rectangle of subdivisions bounded by U.S. 19, McMullen-Booth Road, State Road 590 and Sunset Point Road. The plumbers, cops, teachers and retirees who cast their votes at a Methodist church lean Republican, but many tend to be more interested in the candidate than party affiliation.

Precinct 610 is a bellwether for Florida elections, mirroring statewide results within a couple of points. Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole here in 1996, but Jeb Bush easily won the precinct over Democrat Buddy MacKay in 1998. In 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush essentially tied across Florida, the tally in Precinct 610 was 451 for Bush and 452 for Gore.

So where's 610 headed on Nov. 5?

Bush appears to have the advantage, based on more than 30 interviews last weekend, but the governor hasn't closed the sale for many voters. People who supported him in 1998 expressed at least mild queasiness about giving him four more years, though few knew much of anything about McBride.

The 1,381 voters here are mostly white, working people who prefer their politics in small doses. They scan the newspaper and watch the TV news or Bill O'Reilly to keep abreast of current events. They know their neighbors, but don't necessarily spend much time chatting over their fences.

Kids bicycle on quiet streets, passing $100,000 to $150,000 homes and neighbors puttering in their lawns and garages. Political yard signs are almost nonexistent.

People here generally are not angry about the direction Florida's heading. Nor are they enthusiastic. They talk about underfunded schools, unchecked growth and a sputtering economy.

"I think we need a change," said Republican Mildred Ebert, wiping her brow as she paused from her weeding.

The retired telephone company worker voted for Bush in 1998, but now lumps him with his brother in the White House, whom she sees doing nothing for the economy. She pointed to three nearby houses where neighbors lost their jobs in recent months.

"I've lost a hundred-something thousand on my stocks," she said. "Now I have to sit and scrape in my old age?"

Such pessimism is hardly universal. From State Road 590, veer north to Terrace Drive, and you find people like Rebecca and Brad Benke, both independent voters. Mr. Benke, 35, is a home remodeler who finds business booming no matter where the stock market is headed.

Florida's doing well, he said, and despite some concerns with schools, he likes Bush's emphasis on greater accountability.

"I like Jeb," he said. "It's not just him, but I'm actually influenced by the other Bushes. The president of the United States makes me trust Jeb more."

Mrs. Benke, 40, also expects to vote for Bush, although much of what she says about Florida schools echoes McBride's platform. They need more money, she says. Classes should be smaller, and rather than rewarding the best performing schools with money, the state should concentrate resources on struggling schools.

Sitting together outside their front door, Brad Benke says he's not bothered by notes from school asking parents to donate basic school supplies. He gives gladly: It's a way of helping other families with less money.

His wife gently shakes her head. "I always feel like there's not enough money for schools," she said. "A lot of the teachers tell me that many of the supplies in their classroom they pay for themselves. That's not right."

The sign on Doug Bell's door says, "Love, laughter and friends always welcome here." Inside, Bell, an athletic 53-year-old special education teacher, is laid up in bed, having recently blown out his knee in a softball game.

Bell, married to a school principal, is a Republican who hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. He's a McBride man in this governor's race, though that has more to do with his impression of Bush than McBride.

It's not merely inadequate funding for schools, though that's a big part of it. Bush, he says, has been misleading about how generously he has invested in schools and too rigid in his ideology.

"I think he's a little more cocky than his brother, and in my opinion a little less likely to listen to other people," said Bell, a George W. fan. "I look for character. I look for a person who may see a solution that runs counter to his own beliefs and does it because it's the right thing to do."

A few streets away, Republicans Bill and Heidi Fletcher are in their front yard with their second-grade daughter. Both consistently vote Republican and will again this year, though Mrs. Fletcher is not entirely happy with Bush.

She's satisfied with her daughter's school, which was recently renovated, and is happy that she has only 23 kids in her class. But Mrs. Fletcher, like the overwhelming majority of her neighbors interviewed, will vote for a ballot initiative mandating smaller class sizes no matter how expensive it is.

"What's too expensive for our children's education?" she asked curtly. "For what my daughter had to learn in second grade, it's unbelievable compared to when we were in public school, and kids can't do that if their classes are too big."

Sherry and Jim McClelland Jr. don't have kids, but they have worries about Florida. Traffic is getting worse, development is taking over every inch of green space and working stiffs never seem to stop treading water. Until schools start improving, he says, decent paying jobs will continue to be scarce.

"It's not a matter of party to me," said Mr. McClelland, a butcher and a Democrat. "I'm not a real political person, but I can't see what Jeb Bush has done. I don't know anything about McBride, except that he's not Jeb and that's enough for me. People are hurting. Jobs are a dime a dozen around here, but you get $7, $8, $9 an hour. How do you pay a $1,000 mortgage? . . . Florida could be a lot better place to live -- a lot better -- than it is now."

Back on Sue Drive, Mike Rocha said he has decided to stick with Bush after toying with voting for McBride. What did it for him was a radio ad blasting the cost of the class size initiative, and watching part of Tuesday's televised Bush-McBride debate.

"I don't mind additional taxes, but I don't want the money wasted," he said. "I really do like McBride's ideas, but I don't trust he'll find a reasonable way to pay for (them)."

Moriah Rocha missed the debate but had her mind made up Tuesday night talking to a friend at soccer practice. Florida and its schools, she thinks, are not faring as well as Bush says. "I was already leaning toward McBride, and I'm pretty much tired of listening to Jeb Bush say everything's fine."

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

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