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Florida loses its primary importance

TV campaign ads are all but non-existent this primary season because the presidential nods may be locked up by March 14.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2000


This may be cause for celebrating rather than complaining.

During a period when presidential politicking should be peaking in Florida, voters may not see a single campaign ad on television before the state's primary.

Blame it on timing.

By Florida's primary on March 14, the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations may be all but over. The big day is Tuesday, when more than a dozen states hold primaries that could effectively end races that have taken more twists than many observers expected.

George W. Bush's lone challenger for the Republican nomination, John McCain, acknowledges that the fate of his insurgent campaign will be decided by how well he does Tuesday in states such as California, Ohio and New York.

He has not committed to remain in the race beyond then.

"I believe it will be decisive," McCain said Friday on the Don Imus radio show.

The possibility that there will be a contest for the Democratic nomination by the time Floridians vote is even more remote. Vice President Al Gore has won every contest so far. Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley is expected to give up if he does not pull off a few upsets Tuesday.

"I'd hoped we would catch some lightning in a bottle," said Mike Abrams, a former state legislator from North Miami Beach who supports Bradley, "but we didn't."

How far is Florida out of the game?

The only campaign commercial broadcast so far in the state has been by Bradley. Bradley was briefly on the air several weeks ago with an ad portraying himself as the longest supporter of abortion rights.

Aides with all four campaigns said last week that whether any ads are aired in Florida depends upon the results of Tuesday's primaries.

"We want to make certain we win and we win as big as we can," said Jillian Inmon, the executive director of Bush's campaign in Florida. "We are in a kind of wait-and-see mode."

The only candidate committed to traveling to Florida before the March 14 primary is Gore, who also was in Jacksonville Friday to appear at a high school and receive an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

Bradley campaign officials say the former senator will come to Florida -- if he is still in the race.

Inmon said campaign officials are hoping to see Bush in the state at least once, although nothing is set. Bush's father, former President George Bush, is expected to speak at a fundraiser for the state Republican Party on Thursday in Miami.

The Texas governor is expected in late March for a fundraiser, probably in Palm Beach.

Despite the likelihood that the presidential nominations will be locked up before Florida's primary, Bush and Gore have built impressive grass-roots organizations in the state.

Bush is organized in all 67 counties and can count on the vast campaign network already assembled by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Gore, whose state campaign is headed by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, has about 10 paid campaign workers here and county or regional coordinators responsible for every corner of Florida.

Supporters for both front-runners say the groundwork laid now will pay off for the general election if it turns out there is no need to gear up for the primaries.

"We will be prepared to run an organized, aggressive grass-roots campaign when the time comes," said Karl Koch of Tampa, chairman of the Floridians for Gore executive committee.

Without a television air war, presidential campaigns are relying heavily on volunteers such as Sandy Faulkner of Palm Harbor.

Faulkner, a 39-year-old mother of three, heads for the bedroom-turned-office in her Palm Harbor home on many nights and spends several hours working for George W. Bush. She telephones other Pinellas volunteers working on the Texas governor's presidential campaign.

Or she calls voters and solicits their support. Or she checks on plans for Bush supporters to meet Tuesday and watch election returns from primaries in other states.

"It's better to be prepared," said Faulkner, who volunteered for previous campaigns for Bush's father and brother. "It's still a good idea even if there isn't a race."

McCain, a former prisoner of war, has a loose organization of military veterans around the state who are working for his campaign. His state chairman, Comptroller Bob Milligan, opened a campaign office in Tallahassee on Monday that is staffed with volunteers.

Milligan said about 1,200 to 1,400 Floridians are linked to the campaign through electronic mail.

"It is a shoe-string, covert operation," said Milligan, a former Marine lieutenant general. "But it is really a networking operation. Then if the folks decide they want to put some energy in here, we will be prepared."

The Republican primary in Florida awards 80 delegates. The winner of each of 23 congressional districts wins three delegates, for a total of 69.

The overall state winner will receive an additional 11 at-large delegates.

Milligan said he thinks McCain could pick up delegates in the state where there is a large number of military veterans, including the Panhandle and areas around Jacksonville.

While Milligan has no problem with Jeb Bush's organization mobilizing to help his brother, he is irritated that Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas is actively supporting George W. Bush. Many state Republican chairmen and members of the Republican National Committee also have endorsed the Texas governor.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the party leadership in Republican Party headquarters to choose sides until after the people have made the decision," Milligan said. "That always has been the traditional way of doing business."

Democrats award 140 delegates based on proportional results in each congressional district and statewide.

Bradley had hoped to do well in South Florida, where many retirees are from the Northeast and are familiar with his days as a senator from New Jersey or as a basketball player with the New York Knicks.

If Bradley remains in the race after Tuesday, campaign aides expect him to come to Florida and talk about reducing the number of uninsured and reforming campaign finance laws.

"It's all about message," said Natalie Zellner, Bradley's state campaign director.

Florida may have played a larger roll in determining the nominees for president if state legislators had moved up the primary election as other states did.

Some legislators wanted to move the primary to March 7, but the issue died last year when it became tangled with campaign finance reform.

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