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The races may be over, but primary goes on

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2000


This may be the safest election prediction in state history.

George W. Bush and Al Gore will win Florida's presidential primaries today by a landslide.

Of course, Gore has no competition for the Democratic nomination. The vice president's only challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, dropped out last week.

Bush also has no serious challengers left. After Arizona Sen. John McCain suspended his campaign last week, only long-shot Alan Keyes has not given up and conceded the Republican nomination to the Texas governor.

But Florida's presidential primary will go on as scheduled, just as primaries will in nearly two dozen other states between now and June.

The only uncertainty today is whether the voter turnout will be higher than the previous low for a presidential primary in Florida -- 29 percent in 1996.

Both the Bush and Gore campaigns are urging Floridians to vote even though the nominations are decided.

"Our message is you get to vote twice for this guy," Gov. Jeb Bush said Sunday as he campaigned with his older brother at the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, referring to today's primary and the November general election. "Don't waste it."

Karl Koch, chairman of the Floridians for Gore executive committee, said Monday that the campaign is encouraging Democrats to vote. But he acknowledged that many voters will stay home because the contest has been decided.

"People aren't going to feel pressure to go vote," Koch said, "but Democrats will want to send a message about their preference."

In some Florida counties, voters will find local races and issues that will be more significant than the presidential primary results.

More than a dozen local governments in Pinellas have local contests or referendums, from St. Pete Beach to Tarpon Springs. State elections officials are not predicting how many voters will turn out, but Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles estimates 25 percent of the electorate will vote in her county.

There are no local races on the ballot in Hillsborough County.

The statewide cost of today's perfunctory primary is expected to be roughly the same as the cost of the 1996 presidential primary: $6-million.

In Pinellas alone, the cost is expected to be roughly $400,000.

Florida is one of a half-dozen southern states holding presidential primaries today. The others are Bush's home state of Texas, Gore's home state of Tennessee, and Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma. There are 341 Republican delegates and 566 Democratic delegates at stake.

The Bush campaign says it has 781 delegates and would be within eight delegates of reaching the 1,034 needed to nail down the nomination if the Texas governor won every delegate. Gore has 1,679 delegates and needs 2,170 to lock up the majority of Democratic delegates, a mark he could surpass tonight.

As voters in Florida and other states go through the motion, Gore and Bush already are looking toward November.

The vice president will await election results tonight in Tallahassee, a gesture underscoring the Democrat's assertion that Florida is up for grabs even with Bush's brother in the Governor's Mansion.

On Monday, in Miami, Gore promoted his health care plan at Jackson Memorial Hospital in an event that was broadcast live over the Internet. He would guarantee every child access to health care over four years, offer tax credits to small businesses that offer health insurance, provide a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, and allow people between ages 55 and 65 to buy into Medicare coverage.

The vice president questioned whether Bush has the experience to lead the nation and criticized the Texas governor's proposed tax cuts.

Gore said Bush's tax cuts could eat up the entire non-Social Security budget surplus and force a return to the deficit spending that occurred during the administration of Bush's father.

"You would think that Gov. Bush would be a little reluctant to come before the American people and say, "Let's get rid of what's working and go back to what failed,' " Gore said.

Bush had a quick response Monday at a rally in Brandon, Miss.

"If America is pleased with what Clinton-Gore has done to the spirit of America, I'm not the right person," Bush said on stage with the state's two senators, Majority Leader Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. "But if America wants somebody not of Washington, if America wants somebody who trusts people, not the government, if America is interested in somebody who knows how to lead, come and join this campaign."

Ex-president back in Naples

NAPLES -- Former President George Bush returned to the city where last month he was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat

Joking about his retirement, Bush said his decades long political career is over.

"I don't do politics anymore," he told a gathering Friday of the Quest Educational Foundation, a non-profit group that provides mentors and scholarships for schoolchildren.

"The torch has been passed to those two great sons of ours."

Bush was referring to Govs. Jeb Bush and George W. Bush.


-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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