By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000
Florida's extraordinarily close race for president boils down to one word.
The campaigns and political parties selling George W. Bush and Al Gore will waste a combined $3.6-million this week on slashing television ads that will turn you off. They will stuff your mailbox with pamphlets you won't read. They will force you to get up out of your chair to answer the phone, only to slam the receiver down when a recorded message says the other guy will destroy Social Security and end life as we know it.
That's the price Floridians pay for living in a big state where the race could go either way. Being one of perhaps 18 states that are still being contested beats sitting on the sidelines. But the distortions and the name-calling this week won't change enough minds to mean much.
It's turnout, stupid.
The side that best motivates its Florida voters to go to the polls Nov. 7 will squeak out a victory and win Florida's 25 electoral votes. Don't give me all that talk about undecideds. They're a relatively small number here. And if you haven't decided now between Bush and Gore, chances are you aren't going to bother voting.
"It's no longer an air war," said Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, referring to the television advertising. "For the last 10 days, it's just a ground war."
That means the strength of the grass-roots organizations will be critical.
Conventional wisdom says Bush has an edge. His brother is the governor. His political party has deeper pockets. And Bush supporters have often seemed more enthusiastic about their candidate than Gore supporters.
But Democrats are not behaving like typical, disorganized Democrats. Gore has followed through on his pledge to send money and operatives to Florida. The man who managed Clinton's victory here four years ago is back. And Butterworth has worked far harder to put together a competitive organization than most politicians of his tenure and stature would.
Why didn't we envision such a close race?
First, Jeb Bush's ability to transfer his popularity to his brother was overestimated. His capacity to raise money for his brother blinded us all throughout the early months of the race.
The Texas governor raised more than $5.6-million in Florida, a certain record for a presidential candidate and more than Jeb raised for his own campaign for governor two years ago. It's also five times more than Gore raised here.
But it turns out Jeb Bush's popularity cannot be handed to George W. Bush as easy as a campaign check. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found more than 8 of 10 likely Florida voters said their view of the Florida governor would not affect their vote in the race for president. That total sounds a bit high, but it is clear most voters are able to distinguish between the Bush brothers.
The Texas governor has not made the inroads with Democrats in general and black voters in particular that he has in his home state or that his brother did in 1998. Unlike other states, Gore has solidified his base in Florida just as Bush has with Republicans.
The big issues also played right into Gore's hands. Social Security and a prescription drug benefit for seniors have eclipsed virtually everything else, and 18 percent of Florida's 15-million residents are over 65 years old. But those seniors are expected to make up a far larger portion of the voters on Election Day, perhaps more than 33 percent.
So it boils down to turnout.
The key for the Democrats is to get as many of those older voters to the polls as possible, particularly in South Florida. Gore's strongest support is among seniors, and they are most likely to have concerns about Bush's plan to let younger workers divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts.
The higher the turnout, the better for Gore. He also is leading among independent voters, who often don't bother to go to the polls in large numbers. And, as Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas points out, Republicans are motivated to prevent an extension of the Clinton administration.
"Our base hasn't wanted it this bad in 20 years," he said, when Ronald Reagan ousted incumbent Jimmy Carter. "You go to these events and say, "Wait a minute, people are on fire out there.' "
Bush stoked the flames last week, drawing more than 15,000 supporters over four stops in Jacksonville, Daytona, greater Orlando and Tampa -- and he's coming back to the state a week from today. The Texas governor needs to win big along the I-4 corridor, because this will be a traditional fight pitting South Florida against Central and North Florida.
Gore needs to win Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties by maybe 200,000 votes. Bush will make up some of that in southwest Florida, around Naples and Fort Myers. But he really needs to run up advantages in Central and North Florida to win.
Bush brought John McCain to two stops last week and talked about wooing "open-minded Democrats and discerning independents." But his broader goal was to energize Republicans and warn them they can't assume he is going to win if they don't turn out in large numbers.
"This is going to be a close race coming down the stretch," Bush said, "which means the team that has the best grass-roots organization is going to win."
The pressure is on his "big little brother" to deliver.