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As Florida race tightens,
Bush refills coffers

George W. Bush swings through to criticize Al Gore and tap a dependable fundraising source.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


WEST PALM BEACH -- Experimenting with a new campaign line, George W. Bush labeled Al Gore "an obstacle to reform" Thursday as he promoted his plans to cut taxes and overhaul education on a two-stop swing through Florida.

At Colonial High School in Orlando, the Texas governor told students that the Clinton administration has squandered opportunities to reform Social Security, the military and other areas.

"People need to ask, "Who is the reformer in this race?' " he said.

Left out of Bush's list of proposed reforms until reporters brought it up: campaign finance reform.

photo
[AP photo]
Gov. Bush greets the press in Texas before leaving for Florida.

Bush ticked off his ideas, criticized Gore's 1996 fundraising and then flew to South Florida to raise more cash from a vast network of Florida supporters organized by his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. He will raise more today in Clinton's old stomping ground, Little Rock, Ark.

Even as they package themselves as reformers, Bush and Gore are still stuffing their campaign accounts with more cash after locking up the nominations of their respective parties.

The Texas governor expected to raise $750,000 here Thursday night in what was billed as the last Florida fundraiser for his campaign. That will be added to the $4.8-million he already has picked up from Florida.

By comparison, U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., raised only $4.3-million for his 1998 re-election campaign. Buddy MacKay, the Democrat who lost to Jeb Bush in the governor's race that year, raised just $4.6-million.

"It's a happy and sad occasion," said developer Al Hoffman, Bush's state finance chairman. "Happy: My God, we don't have to hit people up any more. Sad: It was fun."

While Bush's success in raising money in Florida is unprecedented, the race with Gore has tightened in the state. At least one poll shows Gore edging ahead for the first time. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and three other Florida newspapers, Bush acknowledged that he cannot take the state for granted.

"It's not a given a Republican will carry the day in 2000," Bush said. "I understand that. That's why I'm back."

He said it is hard to measure how the race would be affected if Gore chose Graham as his running mate. "Obviously, it would increase the degree of difficulty," Bush said. "Bob Graham is a respected person. I would still carry the state."

In West Palm Beach, Jeb Bush introduced his older brother as "the man who will carry Florida convincingly." The Florida governor's tuition vouchers have been ruled unconstitutional by a circuit court judge, and his efforts to overhaul affirmative action are under attack. Outside the Orlando high school, several protesters held signs demanding, "Stop the War on Our School."

But Bush said his younger brother remains an asset to his presidential campaign.

Still, Bush passed up another opportunity Thursday to fully embrace One Florida, the initiative that would replace affirmative action policies in university admissions and state contracting.

"People understand my brother is the governor and he is doing what he thinks is right, and I'm running for president," said Bush, who predicted his brother will be remembered as one of Florida's greatest governors.

Before the high school students and in the interview, Bush contended that the Clinton administration has not done enough to combat high gasoline prices that could harm Florida tourism this summer. In addition to pressuring oil-producing countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Bush joined other Republicans in calling for more domestic oil exploration in areas such as Alaska.

But unlike some members of Congress such as Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Bush said he would not support opening up waters off Florida's coasts to oil drilling.

"I'm not for that," the Texas governor told Florida reporters. "I support the extension of the moratorium."

Bush already has set records for raising and spending money. Through February, the Texas governor had raised $74-million. He had just $7-million left, and he is expected to raise up to $10-million more by the end of April.

Gore also is raising more money even though he has locked up the Democratic nomination. He raised $33-million through February and, for the first time, had more money left than Bush, with more than $10-million in contributions and federal matching money.

After raising about $1.4-million in Florida, Gore is not expected to return to the state to raise money for his own campaign. This week alone, the vice president is expected to raise more than $2-million in a series of fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee.

With both candidates continuing to raise so much money, voters will not buy their pitch that they are reformers like former Republican candidate John McCain, said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization that tracks money in politics.

"Nobody will believe it, and I don't think John McCain is going to stay quiet about it, either," he said. "He has raised this issue to a level like pornography -- people know it when they see it."

The Bush campaign countered Gore's call last week for a voluntary ban on soft money this year by e-mailing to reporters jokes from Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show.

"Kind of embarrassing moment for Al Gore this past weekend," Leno said one night last week. "I guess he and Tipper were at home, you know, in Washington. They sent out for Chinese takeout. The restaurant sent over $2-million in cash."

Florida fundraisers for Bush and Gore say they see no hypocrisy in calling for reform while continuing to raise mountains of money.

Hoffman, Bush's state finance chairman, compared the situation to auto manufacturers who continued to build cars without anti-pollution devices until they were forced to change.

"Everybody knew they had to have them," he said, "but it took a law to make everybody conform."

In fact, the veteran fundraiser said he sees Bush's refusal to accept federal matching money before the Republican convention this summer as the first step in reform. "Don't be like little piggies running to the trough to get public money," Hoffman said. "We cut welfare. Why not cut political welfare?"

Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who coordinates Gore's fundraising in Florida, said Gore and Bush could have reached out to McCain's supporters if the Texas governor would have accepted the vice president's invitation to jointly forgo soft money, the unlimited contributions to political parties.

Instead, Bush began airing an ad that criticizes Gore, who responded with his own ad attacking Bush.

"It is very difficult to achieve consensus on how to run the election when the only response to an offer is to go back to the old rules of engagement," Berger said.

With considerable help from his younger brother's network of supporters, Bush has piled up impressive numbers in Florida. There are now 20 Floridians among Bush's Pioneers, fundraisers who have raised at least $100,000 for the campaign in increments of no more than $1,000. Only Bush's home state of Texas has more.

More than two dozen Floridians also contributed $450,000 in checks of up to $25,000 each in November and December to a separate account that took in more than $5-million. That money will be dispersed through state Republican parties, including Florida's, and spent on Bush's behalf.

Among those contributors: Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga, $20,000; Hoffman and his wife, $40,000; John Sykes of Sykes Enterprises, Tampa, $20,000; and lawyer Stephen Mitchell, Tampa, $25,000.

"We called acquaintances, people with the means to write that kind of check," Hoffman said. "Writing a $25,000 personal check is not an unusual occurrence for those sorts of people."

Bush's success at raising money and rejecting federal matching funds and spending limits may be the start of a trend for future candidates for president, Makinson said. But state Republican Chairman Al Cardenas questioned whether another candidate for president will ever match Bush's fundraising success in Florida.

"It's going to be tough," he said. "You've got a popular governor who has been very successful in fundraising whose brother happens to be the most successful presidential fundraiser we've ever had. World records are always broken, but this one may last for a while."

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