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It's all locked up:
Bush vs. Gore

    Florida now poised for November battle.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- On a night when Al Gore could celebrate anywhere, he chose the Lion's Den.

That's the name of the Leon High School gym where the vice president Tuesday night claimed enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination for president and a forgettable victory in the perfunctory Florida primary.

It also describes Florida for Gore.

Florida turnout falls to a record low
This state was once considered a lock in November for George W. Bush, who won enough delegates in Florida and elsewhere Tuesday to nail down the Republican nomination. Florida Republicans are stronger than ever, and the Texas governor's brother is popular Gov. Jeb Bush.

Yet Gore came here, less than a half-mile from the Governor's Mansion.

"Tonight the South put us over the top and this son of the South is never going to forget it," the vice president told a cheering crowd of more than 1,000. "I wanted to symbolize by my presence here that Florida is a key battleground state in the November election and we're going to fight to win Florida!"

With no serious opponents left for Gore or Bush, Tuesday's six Southern primaries offered no intrigue.

On a day when voter turnout fell to a record low of about 18 percent, Gore led in Florida's Democratic primary 81 percent to 19 percent for Bill Bradley, who dropped out last week, with 90 percent of the vote counted. Bush led in the state's Republican primary with 74 percent of the vote. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who quit the race last week, had 20 percent and Alan Keyes, the only challenger who had not dropped out, had 5 percent.

Perhaps the biggest news of the day was an e-mail Gore sent to Bush. The vice president said he would ask the Democratic National Committee not to run so-called issue ads with soft money, or political contributions of unlimited amount, unless or until the Republican Party did it.

While the primary was a non-event, almost overnight it appears Florida could play a pivotal role in determining the next president.

Gore sounded like a Floridian as he lamented Dan Marino's retirement as the Miami Dolphins quarterback Monday and noted Tallahassee's low crime rate Tuesday night. He praised two legislators who staged a Capitol sit-in to protest Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to overhaul affirmative action. He applauded a circuit judge's ruling Tuesday that the state's tuition vouchers are unconstitutional.

Wild speculation that Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., could be Gore's running mate spread like an oil spill. And opinion polls show the race for president in Florida tightening, with Bush's lead reduced to single digits.

Some analysts say the buzz about Gore's competitiveness in the state should be kept in perspective. After all, Jeb Bush remains a popular governor and Bill Clinton was the first Democrat to carry the state in 20 years when he won re-election in 1996.

"I would not advise them to make Florida a top priority," Stephen Craig, a University of Florida political science professor, said of Gore's campaign. "But I wouldn't write it off by any stretch."

Graham, who deflects all questions about joining Gore's ticket, said the overriding issue in Gore's favor is the booming economy.

"What Bill Clinton and Al Gore said in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid,' is still pretty much a truth of American politics," he said. "Unless there is some unusual situation like a war, people tend to think of the question, "How well off am I?' and "What are my prospects for the future?' If they get positive answers, the incumbent is the beneficiary."

Gore's positions on key issues more closely mirror those of most Florida voters than Bush's.

In two recent visits to sprawling South Florida retirement developments and at Miami's Jackson Memorial Medical Center on Monday, the vice president emphasized his commitment to shoring up Social Security, protecting Medicare and providing a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Florida is in a virtual tie with West Virginia for the highest percentage of Medicare recipients in the country, and nearly one in five residents is older than 65.

Bush wants to use most of the budget surplus for tax cuts of $483-billion over five years and says he would still double spending on Medicare. Gore describes the tax cuts as too risky and more sweeping than those previously sought by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll in November indicated more than a third of Florida voters rank Social Security and Medicare among their top two issues. Tax cuts were listed among the top two issues by just 14 percent.

Bush predicted Sunday at the Plant City Strawberry Festival that voters will reject Gore's attacks on his tax cuts, which he contended will not harm Social Security or Medicare.

"That's exactly the kind of politics America's sick of, going down there and scaring people," Bush said of Gore's visits to the South Florida condos. "They go down there, and they can scream and holler. I'm going to remind people this is an administration that has had seven years to save Social Security and Medicare, and they have done nothing."

Gore also has more Floridians on his side on other top issues, poll results indicate.

Both the vice president and the Texas governor emphasize education. But Gore opposes using public money for tuition vouchers as do most Florida voters. Bush would withhold federal money from low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods and hand it to parents for tuition vouchers in a federal program that would resemble the one Gov. Jeb Bush pushed through the Florida Legislature last year.

Most Florida voters favor abortion rights, and more than seven in 10 support requiring safety locks to be sold with handguns. Gore supports both of those positions and Bush opposes them.

"I don't mind trigger locks being sold," he said during a debate this month in Los Angeles, "but how are we going to enforce it?"

Bush opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's health is endangered. He also has said the Supreme Court overstepped its authority in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Gore also contrasts his environmental credentials with Bush's as he campaigns in Florida. The vice president has played a leading role in efforts to restore the Everglades and opposes off-shore oil drilling. Under Bush, Texas ranks at the bottom of state rankings on several pollution measures.

But while many of the vice president's policy positions mirror the results of Florida opinion polls, his biggest obstacle is intangible: The undeniable popularity of the Bush family.

Jeb Bush also opposes abortion rights and new gun restrictions, and he supports tuition vouchers. He still easily won the 1998 governor's race.

"I don't think you ever take anything for granted," said Florida House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, who is close to Jeb Bush. "But I think when (George W.) comes here and has Jeb at his side it will be a strong message."

How strong may be determined by how Gov. Jeb Bush fares in the coming months. His One Florida initiative to replace affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting remains under attack, particularly from black Democrats who could be motivated to vote against his brother in November. The judge's ruling that tuition vouchers are unconstitutional will rekindle that debate.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who is Gore's state chairman, said it is hard to gauge what it will mean in November for the Republican candidate for president to have a brother in the Governor's Mansion.

"I hope I can be a little competition to Jeb," Butterworth joked, "but I am not the governor, and I am not related to Gore."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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