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Floridians feeling left out in L.A.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 15, 2000

LOS ANGELES -- The political fortunes of Florida's Democrats and Republicans are now in perspective.

The Democrats are at a hotel so close to Los Angeles International Airport they can watch the planes line up on the runway and listen to the takeoffs throughout the night. It is an outpost that is at least an hour away from the site of the Democratic National Convention downtown, so isolated that Sen. Bob Graham abandoned his troops and is staying somewhere closer and quieter.

At the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the Florida delegation was at a downtown hotel in the center of the action. Gov. Jeb Bush brought in his beloved parents one morning and his son the sex symbol, George P. Bush. Floridians sat in front of the podium in the convention hall, near the VIP entrance.

Florida Democrats were treated to an off-key song Monday morning by Graham, who finished far back in the pack in the veepstakes. They might get to see the wife of running mate Joseph Lieberman. In the convention hall, the Floridians are sitting off to the side and many are coping with an obstructed view of the stage.

"Obstructed view" is not quite a synonym for "battleground state."

Democrats acknowledge there was a natural letdown when Graham did not even make it to the finals after so much hype about the possibility that he would become Al Gore's running mate. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state campaign chairman, still says the right things. The tone of his voice betrays his disappointment.

But like Devil Rays fans in spring training, Democrats remain ever hopeful. There is surprising enthusiasm for Lieberman, even from those here who support Gore out of obligation instead of commitment.

In North Florida, Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello is a Blue Dog Democrat, a fiscal conservative who warns the national party not to veer to the left if it wants to win. But he likes Lieberman for the Connecticut senator's moderate views.

In Central Florida, longtime Democratic activist and fundraiser Dick Batchelor said Lieberman will excite moderates who have been lukewarm about Gore. In South Florida, state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Davie said she has been fielding calls from fellow Jews who are excited about Lieberman, the first Jewish person on a national ticket.

"This says to me that I can say to my kids, "One day you can grow up to be president' and you really can," she said Monday. "When I talk to my girl friends, stay-at-home moms who usually don't care about politics, they can't wait."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew, Butterworth and other Gore officials insist Florida will be in play in November even as Jeb Bush speculates Gore gave up on the state when he bypassed Graham.

As evidence, they cite the $2-million that already has been spent on Gore television ads in the Tampa Bay, Orlando and West Palm Beach markets. The Gore campaign also is opening six field offices and will have up to 15 by the election.

Graham said the best way for Gore to stay competitive in Florida is to focus on issues such as Social Security and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. About 20 percent of the state's 15-million residents are over 65 years old, and Graham predicted seniors could account for more than 30 percent of the vote.

The truth is that Florida Democrats need Gore even more than he needs the state's 25 electoral votes.

They need his staffers, money and high profile to help U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson against Republican Bill McCollum. They need him to help congressional candidates such as state Rep. Elaine Bloom of North Miami Beach in her strong challenge to incumbent Republican E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, and former Orange County chairwoman Linda Chapin in her bid to take McCollum's open House seat.

And they desperately need Gore to help turn the tide in 2002.

Victories by Gore and Nelson this fall could help stem the rising Republican tide. Republicans now firmly control the Legislature, and Bush is up for re-election in two years. There is not a Democrat on the horizon who poses a legitimate threat to the popular governor.

"I don't think we have a strong bench at all," acknowledged Batchelor.

Florida convention delegates are being surveyed by the Associated Press about five potential Democratic candidates for governor. All have drawbacks.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth? Won't run.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas? Locked in a tough re-election race now and scarred by Elian debacle.

Rick Dantzler? Buddy MacKay's running mate in 1998 is out of office and out of the limelight.

State Sen. Buddy Dyer of Orlando? Not ready.

Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne? Too short.

The Democrats' problem is that they are stuck in the past and have not groomed young candidates for statewide office. Graham is 63 years old. Nelson and Butterworth are well over 50.

For Cabinet races this fall, the Democrats had to recruit George Sheldon of Tallahassee to run for state education commissioner against Republican Charlie Crist. Sheldon hasn't served in the Legislature since 1982.

State Rep. John Cosgrove knows insurance issues, but he is a long shot against Republican Tom Gallagher for insurance commissioner.

Some Democrats immediately recall how Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles came out of legislative obscurity to win races for governor and senator, respectively. That was 30 years ago, and Florida and politics have changed dramatically since then.

Graham has a good theory.

First he stumped reporters with a question: What are the names of the only three incumbent members of Congress who won statewide races in the last 40 years? The answers are George Smathers in 1950, Edward Gurney in 1968 and Connie Mack in 1988. McCollum would be the fourth if he beats Nelson.

Then Graham noted that eight-year term limits are now forcing state lawmakers out of the Legislature before they can build reputations and power bases. He predicted members of Congress will become the most likely candidates for statewide offices.

He didn't name names. But the Democrats with the brightest futures now are U.S. Reps. Jim Davis of Tampa, Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale and Robert Wexler of Boca Raton.

The party also should look for more unconventional candidates who would be instantly credible. Two possibilities who immediately come to mind are EPA Administrator Carol Browner, a Miami native who plans to move back to Florida; and Bill McBride, the managing partner of the state's largest law firm, Holland & Knight.

If Gore wins Florida and Nelson wins the Senate race, the governor's race in 2002 could attract viable Democrats and become more than a Bush family celebration. And Floridians would get a better hotel and seating assignments at the next national convention.

Otherwise, they might as well stay home and watch C-Span.

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