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Bush's Florida stop pays big for GOP

State Republicans dish out more than $2-million at party's annual dinner as Florida becomes a key factor in the race for the White House.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000

ORLANDO -- Florida Republicans held a reunion Saturday night for an extended family that includes the Bush brothers and a November lineup that is more unified than ever.

The dress at the posh Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Studios was semiformal. The praise was gushing. And the color of the evening was definitely green.

With George W. Bush as the featured speaker at its annual dinner, the Florida GOP raised more than $2-million before sunset.

"Four months until we rid this nation of Clinton-Gore," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee declared to an adoring crowd of more than 1,000 Republicans. "Four months until an administration comes to Washington, D.C., that raises the sights of America."

He argued that his proposed tax cuts would reach more Americans than Vice President Al Gore's smaller, more targeted plan. He also pledged that his plan to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts instead of Social Security would not harm the government program.

The Republicans also rolled out their new fall lineup.

U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Longwood stood alongside retiring U.S. Sen. Connie Mack as the presumptive Senate nominee, his conservative views mirroring those of the man he wants to succeed. Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher moved from the Senate race to the state insurance commissioner's race last week at the request of Gov. Jeb Bush and state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.

In 1988, Mack defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay as George Bush won the presidency. McCollum hopes to benefit from a strong campaign by Bush's oldest son this year. But Republicans pointed out he has more advantages in his race against presumptive Democratic nominee Bill Nelson, the state insurance commissioner, than Mack had a dozen years ago.

McCollum has higher name recognition, Republicans have significantly narrowed the Democrats' edge in voter registration, and the majority of the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation are Republicans now.

"We are the governing party of the state of Florida," Gov. Jeb Bush said in a speech touting accomplishments. "Kind of a cool thing, isn't it?"

Saturday night's Republican fundraiser underscored the state's importance in the general election. George W. Bush, who raised more than $5.6-million for his own campaign in this state, skipped the Texas GOP convention this weekend to help raise money in Florida and other key states.

Bush and Gore did not air a single ad in the state before the primaries. But now the national Republican and Democratic parties are each airing ads here promoting their presidential candidates. Tipper Gore, the vice president's wife, appeared in Miami and Tampa last week. And on Saturday, Al Gore will speak in Miami at the Florida Democrats' annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

Before the Republican fundraiser, the Bush brothers spoke to more than 700 veterans at the state convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

George W. Bush contended the country is on "a slow slide to military weakness."

"I am going to reverse the decline," he pledged to applause.

The Texas governor promised to spend $1-billion to increase salaries in the military, improve military housing and pursue a high-tech missile defense shield.

Bush criticized cuts in military spending and man power over the past decade, and he took a shot at the Clinton administration over the missing computer hard drives at Los Alamos that were found behind a copying machine.

"America's nuclear security should not be a matter of lost and found," the Texas governor said.

Florida has more than 1.8-million veterans, who could be a powerful force in the November election. Gov. Jeb Bush reminded the veterans at the convention of some of the accomplishments of the Legislature: money for an expanded national cemetery at Bushnell and two new nursing homes for veterans; a requirement that Memorial Day be included in the curriculum in public schools; and a new program granting high school diplomas to World War II veterans who couldn't get one because of their service.

Although the Bush brothers were warmly received, there were some skeptics in the crowd.

Bill Ackerman, a 70-year-old Democrat who served in Korea and Vietnam, said he intends to vote for Gore because the vice president has more experience in foreign policy and military issues.

"I just haven't been impressed with him," Ackerman said of George W. Bush. "A lot of people don't give Gore the credit he deserves."

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