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Democrats left to wait as Reno inches to a decision

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 1, 2001

Janet Reno loves Florida. But will Florida love her?

On a Labor Day weekend when the final couple of pieces for the 2002 governor's race are about to fall into place, a lot is riding on the answer.

First, Reno has to say she's running. Some Democrats are nervous at the prospect that Reno will run. While she's considered a favorite to win the party nomination, skeptics view her as too polarizing, or liberal, or both, to defeat Gov. Jeb Bush in a general election.

Early polls show Reno has very high name recognition, with some suggesting that most voters have made up their minds about Reno.

Political scientist Dario Moreno at Florida International University says Reno will have difficulty capturing "the great center" in Florida, that area that has been politically fertile for Reubin Askew, Lawton Chiles and Bob Graham.

"Jim Davis and Pete Peterson are the kind of Democratic candidates who can win in the state of Florida. Janet Reno is the kind of Democrat that loses," Moreno says. "She's a believer that government can improve the lives of people. This is at odds with the view in Central and North Florida."

Reno walks, talks and acts every bit the candidate. Supporters have set up focus groups to test whether her Parkinson's disease will cost her votes. She has talked to prospective media consultants.

It's even possible that Democratic leaders such as Sens. Graham and Nelson -- by appearing to encourage ex-ambassador Pete Peterson to run -- actually helped Reno make up her mind to make the race. Neither man has publicly sought to discourage a Reno candidacy, but Nelson talked of the importance of nominating a "moderate."

"People who say that she shouldn't run and think they can have some impact on her -- I don't think that's the way Janet makes decisions," former Gov. Buddy MacKay said Friday. "I think she follows her head and heart, and does what she thinks is right. If she feels she can make a difference, and feels strongly about the issues, she'll run."

Florida State University President Sandy D'Alemberte said: "You know Janet well enough to know that if Graham and Nelson want her out of the race, that might be enough to make her stay in it."

For the moment, it appears that the party's nomination is Reno's to lose.

Reno can't take two steps without posing for a picture. But every one of her rivals could walk unrecognized tonight across the 50-yard line at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

But look closer. While Reno is wildly popular with average voters, political insiders who raise big money are worried Reno can't win. Some money people, such as Miami lawyer-lobbyist Chris Korge, have joined Peterson's camp.

It is possible that the average voters are right and the insiders are wrong and Reno, the nontraditional candidate, will electrify the electorate.

She's doing pretty well so far. Reno uses self-deprecating wit to win over audiences. She wears dark suits and peers out from Coke-bottle glasses and wears her lack of glamor as if it were a badge.

"I've been alternately described as the 800-pound gorilla; a sad, slightly mad old lady who should rock in her chair; and the sponsor of a teenybopper dance club on Saturday Night Live," Reno told 650 Democrats in Gainesville Thursday night. "What you see, ladies and gentlemen, is what you get."

The crowd roared.

Reno has spent more than four months traveling the state. Even relatives are no help in disclosing her intentions -- they're out of the loop or have been sworn to secrecy. "I told her to please tell me if she knew. Otherwise, let's go kayaking," Reno's sister, Maggy Hurchalla, said Friday.

Reno might be the best thing that has happened to the Florida Democratic Party in a long time. Then again, Democrats may look back on this Labor Day weekend and ask themselves: Why didn't we stop her?

- Steve Bousquet is the Times' deputy capital bureau chief.

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