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    Democrats cheer possible Bush challengers

    By TIM NICKENS

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 25, 2001


    MIAMI BEACH -- In a flashy city filled with would-be stars, Florida Democrats held the first casting call Saturday night in their search for the ideal candidate to take on Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

    More than 1,500 optimistic party loyalists jammed into a ballroom at the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort to get their first look at six possible contenders at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

    It was a quick audition.

    Given two or three minutes each to make an impression, the speakers emphasized their strengths, avoided direct criticism of each other -- and bashed Bush on issues ranging from education to tax cuts.

    "In the spirit of possibility rather than mediocrity, I ask you, fellow Democrats, can Florida do better than Jeb Bush?" asked U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa.

    State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride became the first to clearly confirm they will seek the Democratic nomination.

    "If you don't fight for what you want, you deserve exactly what you get," said Jones, who will become the first African-American to run for governor in Florida. McBride, who resigned as managing partner of Holland and Knight law firm to lay the groundwork for a campaign, bused 200 Tampa Bay area residents to the event. He argued that Bush does not care for enough people.

    "Gov. Bush has never picked oranges, sold watermelons door to door or waited tables -- I have," he said. "Our party needs an unapologetic and proud Democrat to lead our ticket. I am that man."

    The other four who spoke are in various stages of making final decisions: Davis, state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox, and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

    Another possible candidate, former North Florida congressman Pete Peterson, is wrapping up his duties as ambassador to Vietnam and did not attend.

    The Democrats also played a video spoofing Bush's support of tax cuts and tuition vouchers, his remarks during a battle over affirmative action, and his statements on the presidential recount.

    Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who charmed South Florida Democrats last year as Al Gore's running mate, delivered his own criticism of Gov. Bush. He said the outcome of the governor's race could affect President Bush's re-election chances.

    "If you show Jeb the door in 2002," Lieberman said, "we'll show George the door in 2004."

    The fundraiser brought in $750,000, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said. A Republican fundraiser featuring Vice President Dick Cheney raised more than $2.5-million earlier this month.

    About 17 months before the general election, Democrats are upbeat about their chances to upset Bush next year in the nation's most closely watched contest. They believe the first-term Republican is vulnerable on education, the environment, affirmative action and other issues. "Each person should count," Reno said. "The voices of every single Floridian should be heard, not just the rich and well-connected."

    At this stage, Reno is widely considered to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination if she chooses to run. Polls indicate she has the highest name recognition among the possible candidates.

    But publicly and privately, many Democrats expressed concern Saturday that Reno would be dogged by questions about her controversial decisions as attorney general. They mentioned the 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, and her decision last year to send Elian Gonzalez back to his father in Cuba against the wishes of the boy's Miami relatives.

    Reno characterizes those decisions as evidence of her leadership experience. But those controversies, the Democrats said, could take the focus off of Bush and his record.

    "I love her," said Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairman Mike Scionti. But Scionti, who supports McBride, said a Reno candidacy "would be the biggest mistake the Democratic Party could make. The issues that need to be talked about in Florida would give way to Waco and Elian. What do we need that for?"

    Other activists agreed that the campaign must be about Bush.

    "If the focus shifts away from Jeb Bush, regardless of who the nominee is, we're doomed," Broward Democratic Party Chairman Mitch Ceasar said.

    Davis distributed copies of a new poll by Hickman-Brown Public Opinion Research that shows Reno with a 41 percent unfavorable rating and 35 percent favorable. In a hypothetical contest, Bush led Reno by 46 percent to 30 percent and Davis by 44 percent to 30 percent. In a hypothetical Democratic primary, Reno would lead with 34 percent followed by Davis at 15 percent, the poll indicated. No other candidate scored in double digits.

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