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An early start
on November vote

Tuesday's Florida primary has almost no meaning, but visits by Bush and Gore show that neither is taking the key state for granted in the general election.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2000


PLANT CITY -- George W. Bush kissed babies, shook hands and posed for pictures Sunday afternoon at the Strawberry Festival as though the fate of his campaign for president depended upon it.

Today, Al Gore will visit Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami to promote his health care proposals and attack the Texas governor's ideas.

photo
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
George W. Bush looks on as his wife, Laura, hands his brother Jeb a flat of strawberries Sunday in Plant City.

Bush and Gore aren't searching for more votes for Tuesday's perfunctory Florida primaries, which may set a record for low turnout.

The Texas governor and the vice president have locked up the nominations of their respective parties and are looking toward November's general election. Both sides say they do not take it for granted that Gov. Jeb Bush's older brother will carry the state.

"I don't think Al Gore is going to lie down," Jeb Bush said Sunday as he campaigned with his brother.

To drive that point home, Gore won't be sitting in his Nashville headquarters Tuesday night as he watches primary election returns from his home state of Tennessee, Florida and four other southern states.

The vice president plans to be in Tallahassee.

"The fact that we are spending a good chunk of time in Florida (today) and a good chunk of time Tuesday in Florida shows how important we think Florida is," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Sunday.

The general election battle is fully engaged.

Over the weekend, Gore vowed to make campaign finance reform a top priority in an attempt to attract Democrats and independents who had supported Republican John McCain and to distinguish himself from Bush, who has raised a record $70-million.

The vice president contended Bush is captive to special interests, questioned whether he has the experience to lead the nation and attacked his proposed tax cuts as too risky.

Bush campaign officials are reminding voters of Gore's appearance at a 1996 fundraiser at a Buddhist temple and his changing answers about it. Bush campaign manager Karl Rove said more than a half-dozen times on Fox News Sunday that "the vice president has a problem telling the truth."

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After sampling strawberry shortcake, Bush joked to reporters in Plant City that he was so surprised by Gore's new emphasis on campaign finance reform that he thought it was an April Fool's joke.

"I think the fella must think this country has been asleep or something for the last seven years," the Texas governor said. "I think he'll say anything to get elected."

While Florida could play a key role in determining whether Gore or Bush win the presidency, it had no say in picking the parties' nominees.

Gore's only challenger for the Democratic nomination, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, dropped out without winning a single primary and endorsed the vice president. McCain, the Arizona senator who was Bush's only serious remaining competitor for the Republican nomination, suspended his campaign but did not endorse the Texas governor.

Florida's primary will go on as scheduled, as will those in nearly two dozen other states that hold primaries between now and June.

"It's kind of like kissing your sister at this point," said Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, who ran for governor in 1998 and supported Bradley. "But I guess you go through the motions."

The front-loaded primary season, created by states who moved up their election dates to increase their influence, has frustrated members of both major political parties. Democrats and Republicans, as well as state election officials, are studying changes for 2004 that might include primaries grouped into geographic regions.

This week, a Florida House committee will take up a bill that would move the state's presidential primary in 2004 from the second Tuesday in March to the fourth Tuesday in January. That would invade the turf traditionally held by Iowa, the first caucus state, and New Hampshire, the first primary state.

The only suspense left in Tuesday's primaries is how close Bush and Gore will come to accumulating enough convention delegates to officially claim the nominations and whether Florida will set a record for low voter turnout.

In seven previous presidential primaries, the turnout has ranged from a high of 58 percent in 1972 to a low of 29 percent in 1996. Even in 1996, there was still a race between Bob Dole, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination by the time Floridians voted.

Clay Roberts, director of the Florida Division of Elections, would not predict what the turnout will be Tuesday. But Richard Ray is not optimistic.

"I think we'll be lonely," said Ray, a Hunter's Green retiree who came to see the Bush brothers on Sunday and will be a precinct clerk Tuesday. "A lot of people say what's the use. They figure it's already decided so why vote."

Turnout may be boosted by local issues in some parts of the state. In Orange County, voters will decide whether to switch to single-member school board districts. In Orlando, there is a tight race for mayor. In Broward County, voters will determine whether to create a new county mayor position.

But in other large counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, there are no countywide races or ballot issues to lure voters.

In Pinellas, county Elections Supervisor Dorothy Ruggles said she will be surprised if county turnout is above 25 percent, even though 15 local governments have races or issues on the ballot.

Bush and Gore campaign officials said they are taking nothing for granted. Neither campaign aired a television commercial in Florida, but both are using volunteers to call voters, leaving literature at the homes of targeted voters and rallying supporters.

The ballots, which have been printed for weeks, still include candidates who dropped out. Gore and Bradley are on the Democratic ballot. Bush is joined on the Republican ballot by Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Orrin Hatch as well as McCain and Alan Keyes, the former ambassador who has yet to formally surrender.

There is a slim possibility that Bradley and McCain still could win delegates in Florida even after ending their campaigns.

Republicans award 80 delegates. Three go to the winner of each of Florida's 23 congressional districts, and 11 go to the statewide winner.

Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan, McCain's state chairman, sent an e-mail to McCain supporters Friday that thanked them for their efforts and urged them to vote for the Arizona senator.

"If people say it is all over but the shouting and there is a low turnout and an energized group, whoever they might be, they might have more impact than they normally would," Milligan said.

McCain is holding on to his delegates, apparently to press Bush on campaign finance reform and other pet issues.

"I'm going to vote for him and so is everybody else I know, including my mother who is a card-carrying credentialed Republican like I am," said Susie Wiles, chief of staff to Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney. "It is a statement against the party machine."

Democrats will award 161 delegates Tuesday through a combination of results statewide and in congressional districts. Several Bradley supporters said they will vote for the former New Jersey senator even though he has dropped out.

Beth Rawlins of Belleair Beach, Bradley's Pinellas coordinator, said she sent out 25 absentee ballots even after Bradley announced Thursday he was dropping out.

"This is a forum," she said. "It is an opportunity to talk about issues. As long as there is his name on the ballot and people are still going to the polls, I am going to talk about these issues."

Will she vote for Gore in the fall?

"I don't know yet," Rawlins said. "I have never abstained yet. I have a feeling by fall that many emotions that are running so high now will have paled."

With 25 Electoral College votes, Florida could play an influential role in deciding the race for president.

Florida and Texas, with 32 electoral votes, have a combined 57 electoral votes. If Bush won those he could offset a Gore victory in California, with 54 electoral votes.

Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years to carry Florida when he defeated Dole in 1996, but he had help.

Reform Party candidate Ross Perot won 9 percent of the vote and helped Clinton slip past Dole, 48 percent to 43 percent. Whether conservative Pat Buchanan, who is seeking the Reform Party's nomination, or someone else emerges as a viable third candidate could help tip the scales this year.

Another unknown is the impact of the controversy over One Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush's initiative that replaces affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting.

Republicans contend the fight has solidified their supporters, but it also has energized many women and African Americans who regularly vote as Democrats and who could turn out in large numbers in November.

Bush, who replaced race-based university admissions in Texas with a plan similar to One Florida, said he does not expect the controversy to affect his chances here.

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