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A county ripe with voters

The GOP has picked several top leaders from Orange County, and both parties see it as fertile political ground.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2003

Toni Jennings, left, is sworn in by Judge Belvin Perry.
ORLANDO -- At least six Orlando TV cameras zeroed in on Gov. Jeb Bush as he watched his new lieutenant governor place her hand on a Bible to be sworn into office inside a packed school board auditorium Friday.

"You have a vision, and I'm here to help with that vision," said former state Senate President Toni Jennings, a beloved political figure in Orange County for more than two decades. "The governor has a lot of strong women around him, and I think he just added one more."

Jennings officially assumed her duties Monday, but this scene was about more than welcoming her to the administration. Friday's ceremony was at least as much about reaching out to one of the most politically crucial areas of Florida.

Orange County -- home to Mickey, the Orlando Magic, gleaming high-rises, picturesque lakes and ungodly traffic jams -- is emerging as perhaps the biggest battleground county in Florida's biggest battleground region.

"What you have heard ... is the giant sucking sound of political leadership being pulled from Orange County," said county chairman Rich Crotty, a Republican. "It has to do with Central Florida being ground zero for swaying elections."

Crotty was refering not only to Jennings but also former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood, the new secretary of state. President Bush, meanwhile, tapped former Orange County chairman Mel Martinez to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

All three are now prospective Republican contenders for governor in 2006, and some Republicans hope Martinez jumps into the 2004 U.S. Senate race to succeed Bob Graham.

But in no way is Orange County a lock for the GOP. Much like the Tampa Bay area and the rest of the Interstate 4 corridor, Orange County can be as unpredictable as a ride on Disney's Tower of Terror.

This, after all, is a county that Jeb Bush won in 2002 by nearly 15 percentage points, but which his brother lost in 2000.

The 415,000 registered voters here worry about schools, unchecked growth and general quality of life issues. They tend to look at the person running, not necessarily party affiliation. Two months before Orange County voters overwhelmingly backed the anti-tax Gov. Bush, they voted to increase their sales taxes to improve schools.

Both parties are working ferociously to make inroads among Orange County's swing voters.

That can be seen in the governor's recent appointments and in Orlando's recent mayoral race, where Democrat Buddy Dyer beat Republican Pete Barr Sr. Officially, it was a nonpartisan race, but the partisan politics and stakes were evident throughout. Recorded phone calls from Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson helped push Democratic turnout for Dyer, a former state senator who lost a bid for attorney general in November to Republican Charlie Crist.

If Orlando's mayor had been a Democrat in 2000, "Al Gore wouldn't have lost Florida by 537 votes; he would have won by thousands of votes and would be in the White House today," said Doug Head, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party.

Once a fairly safe county for Republican statewide candidates, Democrats are increasingly picking up strength. Bob Dole barely won Orange County in 1996, and four years later Al Gore became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since World War II.

Republican lawmakers drew districts to ensure Orange County's legislative delegation is overwhelmingly Republican, but county offices are pretty well divided among the parties. Democrats overtook the GOP in party registration a few years ago and today comprise roughly 41 percent of the electorate, compared to 39 percent for Republicans.

A big reason for the Democrats' gains is the influx of Hispanic residents. Transplants from Puerto Rico, Colombia and other Spanish-speaking countries now account for one in five Orange County residents. Unlike conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida, most immigrants lean Democrat, though many do not vote and most are not fervently partisan.

"The key to winning Central Florida," Gov. Bush said, "is doing well with Republican/swing voters and with Hispanics. I worked very hard at that as a candidate."

The bilingual governor, who is married to a Mexican-American, is enormously popular among Hispanics in Florida, and last year he overwhelmingly beat Democrat Bill McBride in Orange precincts with large Hispanic populations. The state GOP has been aggressively courting Central Florida Hispanics, and last year managed to win a state House seat in a heavily Hispanic area of Orange expected to go to the Democrats.

"We're winning the voter registration battle, but we have got to do a better job winning the turnout battle," said Jim Carlson, a Hispanic Democratic activist from Orlando.

As Carlson spoke Friday, Gov. Bush stood nearby, looking into a TV camera and flawlessly speaking Spanish for an Orlando Spanish-language TV station.

In this battleground, party affiliation goes only so far.

"It's the message that's important," said Jennings, "and it has not so much to do with party registration."

-- Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241.

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