Time to decide
By BILL ADAIR and TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2000
MIAMI BEACH -- For decades Florida has been known worldwide for its palm trees, beaches and theme parks.
Today, add to that list presidential politics.
Florida remains the largest state where Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are tied as voters go to the polls today. The candidate who wins the state's 25 electoral votes should be the one better positioned to win the presidency.
Gore and Bush focused on Florida until the end as their campaigns cranked up get-out-the-vote efforts involving more than 10,000 volunteers on each side.
The vice president flew a final time to South Florida late Monday to rally thousands of supporters on Miami Beach's trendy South Beach. He was joined by musicians Stevie Wonder and Jon Bon Jovi, as well as actors Robert De Niro, Glenn Close and Ben Affleck.
Affleck reminded the crowd that Gore had been called the smartest in his class.
"There are three jobs where you want the smartest person in the class: airplane pilot, heart surgeon and president of the United States," Affleck told the crowd of several thousand on South Beach.
Gore came on stage shortly after 1 a.m. and declared, "We're going to carry Florida! We're going to win the White House."
Well before sunrise this morning, Gore planned to make Tampa the last stop of his campaign. He was to visit the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and chat with campaign volunteers before flying to his home state of Tennessee about 8 a.m.
Bush spent his last night on the campaign trail in Orlando, after a large rally Sunday night at a minor league baseball stadium. That event ended a five-city campaign swing through the state that included a stop outside Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
"We've laid the groundwork for victory," Bush said Monday morning as he left Orlando for stops in Arkansas, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Iowa before landing in Austin, Texas, late Monday. "Now it's just getting people to the polls. I trust the people. I trust that they've heard our message."
While state elections officials would not project the voter turnout for Florida, both sides are expecting it to be huge. Local predictions include up to 80 percent turnout in Miami-Dade County, 75 percent in Hillsborough and between 65 percent and 75 percent in Pinellas.
"This is one of those rare races where you can honestly say if you bring five voters with you, you may make the difference," said Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman.
As counties report their results tonight, each side will look to several key areas to spot trends that could foretell the winner.
Gore hopes to build a large advantage over Bush in South Florida, particularly in strongly Democratic Broward County. Bush wants to cut into that margin with overwhelming support among Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County. He also hopes to perform well in Palm Beach County, where the Democrats' advantage in registered voters is smaller than in the other two counties.
To offset Gore's expected overall lead in South Florida, Bush has to perform well in more conservative North Florida and the state's geographical and political mid-section: the I-4 corridor that runs from the Tampa Bay television market through Orlando to Daytona Beach.
Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are considered the swing areas in the swing region of the swing state.
"The Tampa media market is ground zero," said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for Gore. "We find ourselves with Florida being crucial to the election, and the Tampa media market being the key swing area in Florida."
That's why Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman were to come to Tampa during the wee hours of this morning and have their visit played over and over on local television. It's also why both men called morning radio shows on Monday to reach commuters.
Gore spoke for about 10 minutes on the WFLZ-FM 93.3's MJ & BJ Morning Show, the top-rated show among listeners ages 25 to 54. Lieberman spoke on WFLA-AM 970's AM Tampa Bay show.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on the voters there," Lieberman said, "but the future of America is in your hands."
On WFLZ-FM, radio personality MJ Kelli complimented Gore for the kiss he planted on his wife, Tipper, at the end of the Democratic National Convention.
"Someone asked me, "Were you trying to send a message?' " Gore said. "I said, "Well, I was trying to send a message to Tipper.' "
Meanwhile, Republicans remained confident that Bush will carry Florida.
"I've never felt like it was going to be anything but a close race," said Gov. Jeb Bush, the younger brother of the Texas governor. "We're going to win, and we're going to win because we have intense and passionate support."
Both sides have organized enormous voter drives.
Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas predicted Republicans would have an advantage of more than 100,000 absentee votes, which could be decisive. He said the GOP has made hundreds of thousands of telephone calls in the final days, including taped messages from Jeb Bush, and has sent out up to 9-million pieces of mail in recent weeks.
"In less than 24 hours, we're going to be getting ourselves to a point in the first time in the history of Florida ... we're going to have a Republican legislature, a Republican governor, a Republican Congress and a Republican president," Cardenas said Monday night.
The Republicans also were sending out an e-mail from former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, urging Bush supporters to turn out. "We have an extraordinary opportunity on Nov. 7," Powell says in the note. "The Cold War is over, but we need coherent and principled leadership for a rapidly changing world, and a military ready to deter war if possible and win decisively if necessary."
The Democrats say they are making more than 1.5-million telephone calls to voters, which include tape-recorded messages from Gore.
There also were reports of telephone calls to black voters from unidentified callers who claimed the NAACP wanted them to vote for Bush. NAACP officials denounced the calls.
In 1996, Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years to win Florida's electoral votes, and no Republican has won the presidency without carrying the state since Calvin Coolidge in 1924. But Bush strategists say the Texas governor can still win the presidency without winning Florida.
Other key states to watch include Michigan and Pennsylvania. Those two rust-belt states are also considered toss-ups. The candidate who wins two of the three largest undecided states should win the election.
Another key indicator will be the returns from six states that Michael Dukakis won in 1988: Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. The Texas governor, underscoring the campaign's confidence, also stopped in Clinton's home state of Arkansas and in Gore's home state of Tennessee.
"My opponent vows to carry his home state," Bush said at a rally in Chattanooga. "He may win Washington, D.C., but he's not going to carry Tennessee."
But the bigger spotlight tonight will be on Florida.
"I can't think of the verb that would be beyond "in play,' " Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said of all the attention showered on the largest toss-up state. "I doubt Florida or many places would see this kind of intensity -- ever."
-- Times staff writers David Karp and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report, which used information from the AP.
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire