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Up for grabs, Florida sees race heat up

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


LONGBOAT KEY -- Florida is becoming a second home for Al Gore and George W. Bush.

After three days of preparation at the Mote Marine Laboratory here, the vice president leaves this morning for Boston and the first presidential debate with the Texas governor.

But both will be back in the Sunshine State by the week's end.

Gore will fly back to Orlando late Thursday, where he will watch the vice presidential debate on television that night. Friday morning, he will be joined by running mate Joseph Lieberman for a rally in downtown Orlando.

On Saturday, Bush is expected to campaign in Pasco and Brevard counties.

And by Sunday night, Gore may return for a few days to prepare for the second debate.

"We're like the proverbial dog that caught the truck," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Monday of all of the attention. "We got what we wanted."

Even President Clinton can't stay away.

The president will appear at a fundraiser tonight in Miami and plans to watch the debate there.

The reason for all of this attention, of course, is the tight battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes. Opinion polls indicate the race is a tossup or Gore is slightly ahead, a sharp turnaround from a year ago when Bush led in a St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll by 15 percentage points.

The spotlight on Florida also contrasts with the scant attention it received during the primary season. Bush and Gore all but wrapped up the nominations of their respective parties before the March primary, and neither candidate aired a single ad in the state before that election.

Now the state is inundated with ads and campaign appearances.

The Bush campaign and the Republican Party spent more than $6.2-million on ads promoting the Texas governor in Florida between June 1 and Sept. 20, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The Gore campaign and the Democratic Party spent more than $3.1-million on ads backing the vice president, the center reported.

Gore has made nine trips to Florida since the primary season, compared to six for Bush.

Aside from the close race, other variables have contributed to the attention. The key campaign issues, such as Social Security and a prescription drug benefit for seniors, are tailor-made for a state where one in three voters are expected to be seniors.

Gore's selection of Lieberman, the first Jewish politician on a mainstream national ticket, also has excited Jewish Democrats in South Florida. And with Gore favored to win California and New York and Bush a sure bet in his home state of Texas, Florida is the largest state where the outcome is still in doubt.

By the time Bush and Gore return, the dynamics of the race could have changed with tonight's debate.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who plans to fly to Boston today for the debate, on Monday predicted his older brother will do well and called Gore "a pathological exaggerator." Gore has been criticized for overstating his role in creating the Internet and establishing the national petroleum reserve. He also cited drug costs for his mother-in-law and his dog in a Tallahassee appearance that actually were from a government report.

"The debate will matter," Jeb Bush said. "It's going to be important for people to get firsthand, to see what's in the hearts and minds of these candidates. And I know my brother's going to do pretty well."

On his last full day of preparation, Gore ran 5 miles on a treadmill, walked on the beach, ran through some questions and answers, and held another mock debate.

"There are just very, very, very few opportunities you have in a modern-day presidential campaign to talk to that many people," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said of tonight's debate, which could draw 70-million to 100-million viewers. "He just needs to go out there and tell people what he believes in, what his agenda is."

-- Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

After debate, 'Hello, Florida'

George W. Bush and Al Gore meet tonight in Boston for the first of three televised debates. After the event, neither will linger in the Northeast. That's because with the race for Florida and its 25 electoral votes tight, both presidential candidates will return to the state by the end of the week.

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