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    Democrats get ready to take on the Bush brothers

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 17, 2001


    Gov. Jeb Bush recently announced that he will seek a second term, and most Republicans expected the White House, where George W. Bush occupies the Oval Office, to deftly use its prestige and power to boost the governor's re-election effort -- or at least take care not to harm it. After all, Jeb Bush took a heavy political hit for his brother in last November's presidential election debacle. But Florida Republicans are beginning to wonder about the competence of the president's political advisers, who apparently still don't understand politics in the Sunshine State.

    The governor says he intends to run his own campaign, stand on his own record and let his brother tend to his presidential business. Democrats, however, have other plans. For them, next year's election is about political payback. If they can't have the president's political scalp, they'll settle for his younger brother's. It promises to be the most widely watched, heavily financed state campaign since Hillary Clinton decided to run for the U.S. Senate in New York.

    At this stage, it's hard to gauge whether brother Dubya will prove to be a plus or a minus for the governor. In a front-page story, the New York Times last week reported that Florida Republicans are furious over the way the White House handled the president's latest trip to Florida, a big photo-op in the Everglades National Park designed to burnish his environmental credentials. The complaint is that the White House, in a clumsy attempt to project an image of bipartisanship, ignored Republican lawmakers who for years had championed restoration of the Everglades and instead shared the spotlight with the state's two Democratic senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, and with U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, one of the president's harshest critics. These Democrats used the occasion to castigate the president for proposing oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which could be a killer issue in Jeb Bush's re-election bid.

    The Bush administration in Washington may yet have the good sense to lift that weight from Jeb Bush's political neck. The governor has enough political problems without having to defend his brother's position on drilling in the gulf, which he strongly opposes. But if Democrats have their way, Jeb Bush will not only have to defend his own record as governor but his brother's record as president on everything from Social Security and Medicare reform to high energy prices and the environment. Democrats plan to nationalize Florida's governor's race, making it referendum on last November's presidential election and using it to raise big money outside Florida. I'm sure they can count on the maximum contribution from Barbra Streisand, who doesn't try to conceal her loathing for the Bush brothers.

    That would be unfortunate, for Floridians deserve a campaign centered on issues that matter to them, not to the Hollywood and Washington elite. The governor's race should focus on Jeb Bush and his record. That record should provide Bush's Democratic challenger plenty of political ammunition -- his replacement of affirmative-action programs, his A+

    education plan, his abolition of the state Board of Regents, his inadequate funding of public schools and the state university system, his assault on the state civil service and his environmental policies.

    Jeb Bush has a lot to answer for without trying to hold him accountable for what his brother is doing in Washington. Democrats will be making a political mistake by inviting the Bush-haters from around the nation to pile on. I believe most Floridians have come to terms with the outcome of the state's disputed presidential vote and that those who haven't -- primarily blacks, unions, feminists and environmental activists -- would never consider voting for Jeb Bush anyway. (Two manual recounts of Florida's disputed presidential votes by media groups suggest that George W. Bush would have squeaked by under most reasonable ballot-counting standards.)

    The challenge for Democrats will not be fundraising or turning out their voters. It will be coming up with a candidate who can beat Bush, whose approval rating is still well above above 50 percent. Some attractive candidates are exploring the race, among them Pete Peterson, a former congressman and U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, managing partner of Holland & Knight, and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa. Also considering the race are Lois Frankel, the Democratic leader in the Florida House, and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

    In a primary contest with no run-off election, the outcome is hard to predict. The candidate with the largest plurality vote would take the Democratic nomination. Recent polls suggest Reno's name recognition could give her the advantage in a crowded field. This is not good news for Democrats who fear that Reno's controversial record as attorney general, including her refusal to authorize an independent investigation of the Clinton-Gore fundraising abuses, would become an issue in the campaign. It would give Republicans an opening to introduce Bill Clinton into the campaign, which is the last thing we need.

    I'm not convinced Jeb Bush is as vulnerable as the Democrats think he is. But I do think he could be in for a tougher re-election battle than anyone could have imagined before last November. And so far, his big brother isn't helping.

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