By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000
The caller was irate.
Why, he demanded, was he having so much trouble finding out how to watch the debate between Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio when the New York Senate race "is the biggest thing since O.J.?"
The answer turned out to be that the MSNBC cable network would offer a tape-delayed broadcast.
That's what the circus act deserved.
The debate between the first lady and the boyish congressman last week provided a few cheap thrills, particularly for the minority of folks who remain obsessed with loving or hating the Clintons. For the rest of us, there's no better political story than Florida.
Imagine how dull it could have been.
Candidates for president could have been scarce, with George W. Bush taking the state for granted. Sen. Connie Mack could have been cruising to re-election. Congressional races could have been nothing but the usual cakewalks.
Instead, Florida is in the national spotlight.
Bush and Vice President Al Gore are basically tied here. The two Bills, Republican McCollum and Democrat Nelson, are sniping at each other as they compete for Mack's open Senate seat. And Florida has three intriguing congressional races that are ranked among the two dozen in the country that will determine control of the U.S. House.
Just 51 days before Election Day, there is more suspense in Florida in more high-profile races than there has been in recent memory.
The independence of Florida voters has been underestimated. The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush's dominance made it appear as though President Clinton's victory here in 1996 and Democratic Sen. Bob Graham's popularity could be written off as oddities. It now appears that the Republican current may not be as deep and strong as it seemed.
The impact of events outside the control of the candidates may also have more influence on voters this year and account for the competitive races. Jeb Bush's efforts to replace affirmative action in university admissions and public contracting, the Elian Gonzalez controversy and the pull-out of Medicare HMOs in some parts of the state all are defining issues to different segments of the electorate.
"It's a bunch of things," pollster John Zogby said of the pressures that have created the close contests.
Even the issues the candidates are highlighting, such as Social Security and prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients, are tailor-made for Florida.
George W. Bush, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and several other Florida newspapers last week, said he believes issues such as tax cuts, prescription drug benefits and military preparedness are on his side in Florida.
"I think we're in great shape in Florida," he said. "Listen, you know, this is going to be a very tight race. I knew it was going to be a tough and tight race. I'm running against an incumbent. Sometimes incumbency makes a race close and tough. But I like my chances."
Yet tax cuts are only big with Republicans who already like the Texas governor. Few voters are focused on national defense when we're at peace. Many seniors, including some who are losing their Medicare HMO coverage in Hernando County, fear the Texas governor's plan to rely on private insurers for Medicare plans that would include drug coverage.
Few thought the race for president would be this close in Florida, particularly with Jeb Bush in the Governor's Mansion. And if history is any measure, George W. Bush needs Florida's 25 electoral votes more than Gore. No Republican since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has been elected president without winning Florida.
"I don't see how he wins the election without winning Florida," Gore strategist Tad Devine said of Bush.
Meanwhile, Gore's determination to compete in Florida can only help Nelson, the Democratic Senate candidate.
Nelson has led McCollum from the beginning, although the latest polls show that race tightening just a bit. The state insurance commissioner is better-known that the Longwood congressman, and he cannot be painted as liberal. Instead, it is McCollum who is running away from his conservative voting record on gun control and other issues as he tries to portray himself as a mainstream moderate.
Aside from those high-profile statewide races, keep an eye on three congressional races.
In South Florida, Democratic state Rep. Eliane Bloom of North Miami Beach is mounting a strong challenge to long-time Republican incumbent E. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. Bloom has raised a bit more money than Shaw, which is unusual for a challenger in a congressional race. But she slipped up recently by wrongly accusing Shaw in a television ad of voting to privatize Social Security.
In Orlando, former Orange County chairwoman Linda Chapin is a Democrat popular with members of both parties and favored to win McCollum's House seat. Two Republicans, meanwhile, are burning up time and money in a run-off.
In Central Florida, Republican state legislator Adam Putnam was once the favorite to win the seat held by retiring Rep. Charles Canady. But prominent car dealer Michael Stedem has turned the race into a toss-up. Putnam, 26, may be finding that his youth is working against him.
If Democrats swept those three congressional seats, they would have half the number of seats they need to take back the House.
Candidates and strategists from both political parties say there are three variables to watch that could be decisive in the Florida results: Women voters, who often turn out to be swing voters and make their decisions late in the campaign; seniors, who could make up one-third of likely voters statewide; and the so-called I-4 corridor that stretches from the Tampa Bay area through Orlando to Daytona Beach.
The guess here is that it is unlikely either party will sweep the Florida races for president and Senate, and the three most prominent House races. The point is that all of these contests are all surprisingly competitive less than two months from the election, and the outcomes will tell us plenty about the direction of the evolving Florida electorate.
With this political feast, who needs Hillary on cable?