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    Bush returns to Florida, where race remains tight

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 25, 2000

    JACKSONVILLE -- The Bush brothers are back.

    Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, charmed more than 5,000 cheering supporters at a downtown rally here Tuesday night and will head out on a one-day bus tour this morning through Central Florida. The three-stop tour starts in Daytona Beach, pauses in the Orlando area and winds up this evening at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

    "Let's clean house in Washington, D.C., and begin anew," the presidential candidate shouted shortly before fireworks lit up the sky. "It's time to give this nation a fresh start after a season of cynicism."

    As if the Bush brothers don't provide enough star power for Republicans, Sen. John McCain will be along to nudge independent and undecided voters into the Texas governor's camp.

    The Texas governor and the vice president spent another day arguing about the size of government and how to best manage the federal budget surplus. The Clinton administration announced Tuesday a record $237-billion budget surplus for the fiscal year that just ended, but Bush argues that neither Gore nor the government can take credit for the prosperous economy.

    "The surplus is the people's money," Bush said. "He stands for the government. We're standing on the side of the people in America."

    As Bush continued to portray Gore as a big spender who believes in big government, the vice president struck back on several fronts. He said that he flatly is "opposed to big government" and that the number of federal workers has dropped during the Clinton-Gore years.

    "It's just plain wrong," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, said in an interview Tuesday of Bush's charges that the Democrats are big spenders. "Al Gore and I are new Democrats. This is not about big government. This is about expanded opportunity and paying down the debt."

    Meanwhile, the Gore campaign points out, the number of state employees has grown in Texas during the Bush years.

    The Texas governor argues that state government has only grown to reflect the state's population growth and that the government actually shrank when those factors are taken into account.

    Bush was not expected to have to spend two nights and a day in Florida this late in the campaign. The Texas governor had hoped to lock up the state's 25 electoral votes months ago with the help of his brother. But the race here remains tight. Both sides are spending more than $1-million a week on television advertising in Florida, when the totals for each candidate and their respective political party are combined.

    This is the Texas governor's eighth trip to Florida this year. "You are now getting to know him as well as I know him," Jeb Bush told the crowd.

    The Bush brothers and McCain will focus today on the state's midsection, which is filled with swing voters who don't hesitate to cross party lines. Bush needs to win more votes along the so-called "I-4 corridor" to help offset Gore's expected advantage in South Florida, particularly in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

    "I would think he's surprised he's spending so much time in Florida this late in the campaign," Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, said of Bush. "It's flat-out, anybody's race to win."

    Republicans point out that while Bush fights for Florida, Gore is spending this week in 11 states that Bill Clinton won in both 1992 and 1996. They include such traditionally Democratic states as Washington, Oregon and West Virginia as well as Gore's home state of Tennessee, where the vice president campaigned Tuesday.

    The Bush brothers and McCain are expected to draw several thousand supporters to the state fairgrounds tonight, but drawing large crowds is only one way to build enthusiasm.

    Just 13 days before the election, the name of the game for both campaigns is to get on television in as many ways as possible.

    Republican Govs. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Edward Schafer of North Dakota drew just 20 people to a dimly lit VFW hall in St. Petersburg on Tuesday morning after visiting with large crowds in Miami the day before. But they also spoke before four Tampa Bay television cameras.

    Ridge talked up Bush's plans for education. Whitman boasted of tax cuts during her tenure in New Jersey and endorsed Bush's proposed federal tax cuts. Schafer promoted Bush's proposals for Social Security and Medicare. And Texas state Sen. Ken Armbrister, a Democrat, vouched for Bush's willingness to work with politicians from both parties.

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    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk