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    Poll: Bush lead holds steady

    McBride isn't picking off enough Bush supporters to overtake the incumbent governor.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 26, 2002



    Governor Jeb Bush, left, handily leads challenger Bill McBride everywhere except South Florida's Democratic strongholds.
    photo
    A page of poll graphics
    Bill McBride
    has stalled.

    The Democratic gubernatorial candidate gained no ground on Gov. Jeb Bush over the past month and faces a steep climb to close the gap in the campaign's remaining nine days.

    A new St. Petersburg-Times/Miami-Herald poll shows Bush leading the Tampa lawyer 51 percent to 43 percent, with 6 percent of voters undecided. The same pollsters a month ago found Bush with 50 percent support and McBride with 44 percent.

    "These campaigns are stalled, and as long as the incumbent maintains the lead in a stalled political atmosphere the advantage swings to the governor," pollster Rob Schroth said. The McBride campaign, he added, "needs to be jump-started in the remaining days of the campaign."

    The governor handily leads McBride everywhere except South Florida's Democratic strongholds, and there McBride is failing to pull the support Democrats typically require to win statewide. In McBride's home turf of Tampa Bay, a crucial area for the Democrat, Bush leads 55 percent to 40 percent.

    Even the shaky economy isn't hurting Bush, said pollster Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company. During uncertain times, voters are less likely to oust the incumbent, she said. Half of voters think Florida is on the right track, compared with 39 percent who think it's on the wrong track.

    McBride needs a burst of momentum, and the new poll numbers won't help.

    National Democrats eager to knock off the president's brother in America's biggest swing state have made the race a top priority. The poll, however, suggests this is not the neck-and-neck race many had expected at this point.

    "Without a dramatic movement in the campaign ... the governor is comfortably poised for re-election," Conway said. "Based on this poll, I don't think this race is anymore the front-burner race to watch that many people thought it was."

    Though more undecided voters are Democrats than Republicans, McBride has to do more than win them over. He also must peel off wobbly Bush supporters.

    The St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll was conducted Wednesday through Friday by the Washington-based polling firms of Schroth & Associates, whose political clients are primarily Democrats, and the Polling Company, whose political clients are Republicans.

    The statewide telephone survey of 800 registered voters who described themselves as likely voters in the Nov. 5 general election has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

    It was conducted after Bush and McBride faced off for their final televised debate, which apparently did nothing to help McBride.

    The first-time candidate became a political star when he upset former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the primary. He did it by concentrating on Democrats in Central and North Florida, and ceding South Florida to Reno. Now he's paying a price for that strategy.

    He leads Bush 52 percent to 43 percent in South Florida. But every winning Democrat in a race for president, the U.S. Senate or governor since 1990 has won a larger portion of the vote in those South Florida counties.

    Even Buddy MacKay, who lost to Bush in 1998 by 10 percentage points statewide, won nearly 56 percent of the vote in those South Florida counties. Al Gore, who lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes in the contested 2000 presidential election, won those South Florida counties with more than 62 percent of the vote.

    Bush until recently has overwhelmingly dominated the TV airways, blasting McBride as intent on raising taxes. Those attacks appear to have had an effect.

    Voters with an unfavorable impression of McBride jumped from 20 percent to 34 percent, while those viewing him favorably slipped from 47 percent to 44 percent. Impressions of Bush remained flat over the last month, with 58 percent of voters viewing him favorably and 39 percent unfavorably.

    "Bush defined McBride, McBride didn't define McBride," Conway said. "Right now he's being thought of as a traditional tax and spender."

    McBride has been on the defensive about taxes lately, repeatedly telling audiences that the only taxes he intends to raise to help schools are cigarette taxes. In Lake City Saturday, a conservative Democratic lawmaker backing McBride hammered that home.

    "There's never been a governor of Florida who raised one cent of tax. The Legislature raises the taxes. Don't worry about Mr. McBride raising your taxes," said state Rep. Dwight Stansel, D-Live Oak.

    Nineteen percent of Democrats plan to vote for Bush, while 14 percent of Republicans support McBride. And while a Times/Herald poll 30 days ago showed McBride leading by 5 points among independent voters, Bush now is winning over independents 54 percent to 35 percent.

    Pinellas Park resident David Mangefrida is an independent voter and retired engineering manager at Xerox Corp. He's not especially enthusiastic about the governor, but questions McBride's lack of specifics for paying for education improvements he promises.

    "I tend to look for details and I don't like nebulous answers," said Mangefrida, 70.

    McBride has made improving public schools the central issue of his campaign, but Bush is holding him to a draw in the education debate.

    "If McBride hopes to blow this race open, he needs to take the education issue back," Schroth said.

    Forty-seven percent of likely voters approve of the job Bush is doing to improve schools, and 42 percent disapprove. Asked who they trust most to improve schools, 48 percent said Bush and 45 percent said McBride.

    Voters also trusted Bush more to protect the middle class, protect the environment and reduce taxes.

    "They need to form a credible rationale for firing the governor and hiring McBride," Schroth said of the McBride camp. "Right now that rationale is thin."

    "I'm probably going to vote for Bush," said Tampa lab technician Randy Boonstra, a 48-year-old Republican who liked how Bush worked to boost Florida tourism after Sept. 11. "I've seen what he's had to work with and he's done a pretty good job."

    The poll shows men strongly favor Bush over McBride, but more troubling for McBride is that women are evenly split between the two. Successful Democratic statewide candidates usually lead among women.

    McBride's support among African-Americans is rising, but the governor who overhauled affirmative action and was mired in controversy over the 2000 election is doing better among black voters than many expected.

    Seventy-four percent of African-American voters back McBride, 17 percent Bush and 9 percent were undecided. That would mean Bush is getting a greater percentage of black votes than he received four years ago, when he set a record for Republican statewide candidates. But because black voters made up a small part of the overall poll, the margin of error on those numbers is nearly 9.9 percent.

    Bush also leads overwhelmingly among Hispanic voters, and narrowly among voters 65 and older.

    Another new poll, by the Fort Lauderdale survey organization Florida Voter, shows Bush leading McBride 49 percent to 43 percent. McBride, campaigning among Hispanic voters in Orlando Saturday, urged supporters not to focus on the polls.

    "Some show me up, some show me down," he said. "Don't listen to the noise, just go to the polls."

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