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Gore takes to the air in Florida

Not willing to concede the state to George W. Bush, the Democratic candidate launches his push to win with $500,000 in television time.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 8, 2000


NASHVILLE -- For doubters questioning whether Al Gore is serious about competing in Florida, the vice president's campaign offers this advice.

Turn on the television.

The first ad to feature Gore in Florida hits the airwaves today in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando and West Palm Beach as the race for president turns another corner. The half-minute spot, in which Gore calls for a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, is part of a $25-million ad campaign sponsored by the Democratic National Committee that initially targets 15 states.

Florida's opening share will be about $500,000 in air time, an impressive share of the first $2-million buy. But just to be included in an elite group of battleground states, say campaign aides at his national headquarters in Nashville and other supporters, underscores that Gore will fulfill his pledge to fight George W. Bush for Florida.

"Florida is totally in play," said state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman. "I am convinced they are here to stay."

Republicans criticized the ad, arguing that Gore broke a pledge not to resort to ads paid for by soft money, the unlimited contributions to political parties. Gore's campaign contended that the vice president issued a challenge, not a pledge, that Bush failed to accept.

The new television ad is one of several public indications of Gore's accelerated efforts in Florida.

Gore's wife, Tipper, plans to attend a fundraiser next week at Butterworth's home in Broward County. Then she is expected to travel to Tampa for an event that could be aimed at Hispanic voters.

The vice president, who celebrated clinching the Democratic nomination in March in Tallahassee, will be the featured speaker at the Florida Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner on June 24 in Miami.

And Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., continues to be prominently mentioned in the national media as a potential running mate for Gore.

For the Democrats, Florida is still an uphill fight.

In 1996, President Clinton became the first Democrat to win the state's electoral votes in 20 years. But since then Florida has become even more Republican. Bush's younger brother, Jeb, is governor now and has established a powerful network of fundraisers and supporters.

Bush has raised more than $5.1-million in Florida, which ranks behind only Texas, his home state, and California. Gore has raised more than $1.1-million from Floridians.

The most recent poll shows Bush holding a seven-point lead over Gore in Florida. That is a few points better than earlier polls but not an insurmountable advantage with the general election still five months away, analysts said.

"Any time the race is within 10 percentage points this far out, you have to say it is competitive," said Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter poll. "I don't think George Bush and the Republicans can take Florida for granted, but you have to say they are the favorites."

Behind the scenes, there are indications that Gore is spending the weeks before the national convention in August laying the groundwork to compete in Florida.

Earlier this week, Butterworth and national campaign staffers held a conference call with more than a dozen regional Florida chairmen who will oversee county-by-county efforts. They were given updates on opinion polls, fundraising and the vice president's shift from criticizing Bush's proposals to promoting his own.

One Gore campaign staffer, now based in Tampa, has remained in the state since the March primaries. Florida also has joined Michigan, another swing state, as the first to receive a Democratic National Committee staffer who will help coordinate activities between Gore and state campaigns.

Four years ago, that position wasn't filled until August. Eight years ago, the Democrats didn't send anyone like that to Florida for Clinton's first campaign.

At the national campaign headquarters, Gore aides praise Butterworth for organizing the Florida effort.

"He is one of the best people to work with in the country," said Donny Fowler, Gore's national field director. "He takes a hands-on approach, but not so much that he micromanages it."

Democrats also analyzed the potential fallout from Gore's evolving position on Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who was removed by federal agents from the home of his Miami relatives. Gore had broken with Clinton administration and called for the boy to be given permanent resident status, a move that struck even some Democrats as pandering to Cuban voters in the Miami area.

A quiet analysis by the Democrats minimizes the impact of Cuban voters on the presidential election in Florida. Assuming an election-day turnout of 60 percent and Gore winning 20 percent of the Cuban vote, they figure, translates into 58,000 votes for the Democrat. That is a small number in a scenario that would require more than 2.4-million votes to win a majority.

Instead of focusing on winning Cuban votes in Miami, the Gore campaign is aiming its message to a broader group of Hispanic voters. It includes those Hispanics who live along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando who are more likely to vote for a Democrat.

"It has to be an inclusive message, not aimed to one group or one background," said Karl Koch, a Tampa consultant who is the executive committee chairman of Gore's Florida campaign.

Aside from the prospect of being a player in the race for president, Florida Democrats have another reason to appreciate Gore's interest. A strong effort by the vice president is expected to help Bill Nelson, the state insurance commissioner and the presumptive Democratic nominee in the U.S. Senate race.

The last time Florida had a seriously contested Senate race was 1988, when Democrat Buddy MacKay was hurt by Michael Dukakis' abandonment of Florida and crushing loss to George Bush. MacKay lost to Republican Connie Mack, who is retiring this year, in the state's closest statewide race ever.

The Gore and Nelson campaigns, which mirror each other philosophically, should feed off each other, Democrats said.

"It says a lot about us as a party that Florida is in play," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Wednesday. "Outsiders think this is going be George W. territory because of his brother. Well, that's not the case."

Butterworth acknowledged that part of the strategy involves forcing Bush to devote attention to Florida when he might have taken it for granted. If Florida remains competitive, the Texas governor might have to divert attention from key midwestern states, such as Ohio and Michigan. Gore leads now in California and New York, and Florida's 25 electoral votes are the fourth largest total.

But the state attorney general said Gore also wants to win the state by focusing on issues such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens.

"We are fighting to win in Florida," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said. "We've got the better candidate and the right issues."

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