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Democrats optimistic they can deliver Florida to Gore

The vice president's running mate and issues like senior drug coverage will help him erase Bush's lead, backers say.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 19, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- When the Florida delegation was picked to cast the deciding votes to nominate Vice President Al Gore, the state's Democrats saw the gesture as a ray of sunshine.

Delegates crowded near Sen. Bob Graham so they would be on TV when he announced the votes. After the big moment, they slapped high-fives and shouted, "Florida! Florida!"

"We're more than a battleground state, we're the linchpin state," crowed Bob Poe, the state Democratic party chairman. "We're the state that is going to deny George W. Bush the presidency."

But the Gore campaign still faces a tremendous challenge in the state. Polls have consistently shown Bush leading by 5 to 10 percentage points, and pundits list the state as leaning toward Bush.

Al Cardenas, the state Republican chairman, said Bush's lead has been impenetrable.

"As long as we maintain our lead, Gore will fold," Cardenas said.

But Democrats are optimistic. As the party's national convention wrapped up here this week, they cited several factors they said would give Gore a big boost:

Democrats are favored to win Connie Mack's U.S. Senate seat and Bill McCollum's House seat, which should boost Democratic turnout and help the party in other races.

Early signs show Gore is launching a full campaign in Florida. He will be visiting Fort Lauderdale next week and is likely to visit the state often before the November election, party activists say.

The Democratic plan for a Medicare prescription drug program is popular with senior citizens, a crucial voting bloc this year. Seniors are likely to account for a larger share of the vote this year because turnout among younger age groups is expected to be low.

"It's in Florida where George W. Bush's issues become his biggest problems: Social Security, Medicare and education," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

Democrats say the selection of Joseph Lieberman as the vice presidential nominee has broadened the ticket's appeal in Florida. The Connecticut senator is popular with Jewish people in South Florida, and his moderate politics resonate with voters elsewhere in the state.

"There's a lot of excitement of Lieberman," said Dick Batchelor, a top party fundraiser from Orlando. The Connecticut senator "can go into South Florida in one day and raise $1-million to $2-million."

Many Democrats point to the fact that Clinton won Florida in 1996 as evidence it is a swing state. They are still sore that the Clinton campaign conceded Florida during the 1992 campaign.

"We barely lost it in 1992," said Wexler. "We will not make that mistake again."

Florida, the fourth-largest state, has 25 electoral votes, about 10 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Florida has been a bellwether state, picking the winner in every election since 1948 except 1960 and 1992.

But Republicans note that Florida has voted Democratic in only four of the last 13 presidential elections. The state supported Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1996.

Early signs indicate that both parties will be competing aggressively in the state in the presidential race. The parties and campaigns have spent more than $2-million each this year, and the candidates have made several trips to the state.

"Florida," said Wexler, "is the biggest competitive state."

(Among the three larger states, Gore is favored to win New York and California with their 87 electoral votes, and Bush is certain to win Texas with its 32.)

Batchelor said that winning Florida "will be extra hard" but that Gore is poised to take the state because he "is obviously committed to win Florida."

"It was more than a symbolic gesture to let Florida put him over the top," Batchelor said.

But Republicans are feeling confident.

GOP pollster Ed Goeas said the trends work against the Democrats. "Florida has been an increasingly conservative state. The conservative Democrats are leaning increasingly Republican."

Cardenas, the state GOP chairman, cited a poll that showed Gore has a high negative rating in the state, especially among senior voters. The Democrat continues to trail Bush in nearly every poll.

"If he decides to catch up in Florida, he's got to spend $6- to 10-million. That's a huge amount of money," Cardenas said.

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