By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 1999
Despite a robust economy, Florida voters are divided over the country's direction, anxious about Social Security, alarmed about gun violence -- and ready to send a Republican to the White House.
Exactly one year from the 2000 general election, a St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll of 600 likely voters shows Republican George W. Bush ahead of Vice President Al Gore in Florida. Bush leads Gore 49 percent to 34 percent in a hypothetical matchup, a bit larger advantage than he has in some recent national polls.
The Texas governor leads the vice president in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties by an even wider margin, 58 percent to 31 percent. Both men have wide leads in their respective Florida primaries, which will be held March 14.
Perhaps more significant than the early rankings of the presidential candidates is what the new poll suggests about the mood of Florida voters.
They are not particularly upbeat.
Just 39 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, lower than national polls indicate. Two out of three say their economic situation is the same or worse than four years ago, despite the nation's low inflation and unemployment rates.
Voters also are concerned about gun violence, with nine of 10 acknowledging an incident like the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado could happen in their community.
They are angry at health maintenance organizations, with two of three saying HMOs have a negative impact on health care. And they are divided over whether Social Security will continue to be available to all Americans when they retire.
"It all adds up to a general sense of low-grade anxiety that can't be canceled out only by a robust economy," said Rob Schroth, the Washington pollster hired by the two newspapers to conduct the poll.
As Florida voters lean toward a change in the White House, they are changing their views about which issues are most important.
Cutting taxes and reducing crime have been replaced by protecting Social Security and Medicare and improving public education as the top issues voters want the president and Congress to address.
There is considerable concern about the future of Social Security in a state with the nation's second-highest number of beneficiaries. Using the federal budget surplus to protect Social Security has more support than using the money to reduce the federal debt or cut taxes.
"I'm not really all that confident that it is going to be there," Alex Zavadil, a 43-year-old St. Petersburg Republican, said of Social Security. "You hear all this about the money running out and the baby boomers retiring."
There also is heightened anxiety over guns.
Two of three Florida voters want additional restrictions on handgun purchases. More than one-third would ban the sale of all handguns.
Some of these issues are not Bush's strong suit. The Texas governor wants to cut taxes, which is not a priority for most Florida voters. He also does not support new gun restrictions like those backed by Gore.
But many voters are not aware of Bush's positions yet. Despite his lead, nearly half of Florida's voters acknowledge they do not have a good idea of where he stands on the issues most important to them.
"I can't deny the fact that the family name makes me like him a bit more," Robin Neal, a 40-year-old Republican in Odessa, said of the son of former President George Bush. "I can't say I am very knowledgeable on the issues at this point.
Gore appears to be positioned to take advantage of Florida voters' concerns about particular issues.
Asked which political party would do a better job protecting Social Security and Medicare, 52 percent answered Democrats and just 29 percent answered Republicans. And 48 percent thought Democrats would do a better job improving education, compared to 30 percent who thought Republicans would do better.
Protecting Medicare and Social Security and improving education are the two subjects listed most often among the top issues Congress and the president should address.
Yet Bush still holds a 15-point lead over Gore as the Democrat tries to duplicate President Clinton's 1996 win in Florida.
"The issues set up well for a Democrat; they just don't have a horse on which to ride those to victory at the present time," Schroth said.
There are other indications that Floridians are in the mood for a change in the White House next year, although there is plenty of time for their thinking to change before the 2000 election.
Just 39 percent believe the country is on the right track, while 41 percent say it is headed in the wrong direction and 21 percent don't know. Only a third of the state's voters say they are better off than they were four years ago. Most voters believe they have not cashed in on the good times that Clinton and Gore claim as one of their most significant accomplishments.
There is considerable disagreement over whether the Clinton administration should get credit for the strong economy. Just roughly half say the president deserves a significant amount of credit.
Seven of 10 voters say Clinton's impeachment will not affect their decisions in the voting booth.
"I don't see how Gore can be connected to that at all," said Robert Dean, a 76-year-old Largo Democrat who backs the vice president. "He is an entirely different person than Bill Clinton."
Yet the president's approval ratings are slightly worse in Florida than in the rest of the country. Half of the voters believe the president is doing a good job, but 43 percent disapprove of his performance.
Those numbers could spell trouble in Florida for Gore, despite his efforts in the first New Hampshire debate to distance himself from Clinton and his frequent trips here over the past seven years.
"Clinton fatigue seems to have hit Florida harder, earlier and with a little greater velocity," Schroth said. "When you are the vice president of a president with a 43 percent disapproval rating, you either need to declare independence completely or start picking states where you think you can win."
In the Democratic primary, Gore leads former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley by 54 percent to 32 percent. Bradley ties Gore among voters between the ages of 35 and 49, a group most likely to remember his days as a basketball star.
In Hillsborough and Pinellas, Bradley and Gore are in a statistical tie.
Bradley has made far fewer trips to Florida than the vice president, although his campaign is laying the groundwork for a larger presence. Yet he does better than Gore against Bush, with Bush winning 45 percent to Bradley's 37 percent.
In the Republican primary, Bush has 59 percent of the vote. The only other candidate in double digits is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with 14 percent.
Bush has several other bright spots in the poll.
He has endured media scrutiny over his service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War and his refusal to say whether he used illegal drugs as a teen or in his early 20s. But about two-thirds of Florida voters said their thinking about who should be president is not affected by a candidate's military service or drug use as a young adult.
The Texas governor has a large lead over Gore among male voters, 56 percent to 29 percent. But he also has erased the advantage Clinton had among women voters, leading Gore 43 percent to 39 percent. Bush also won support from 19 percent of black voters, who are mostly Democrats.
In a race that includes commentator Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party, Bush loses little or no ground in Florida. Buchanan gets just 7 percent of the vote in a three-way matchup with Bush and Gore, and most of his support comes from voters who were undecided in a Bush-Gore race.
But the Texas governor's biggest advantage in Florida may be his younger brother.
Gov. Jeb Bush has handed over his fundraising machine to Bush's presidential campaign. The Republican governor's approval ratings remain high even as the GOP-led Congress receives high disapproval ratings.
"If Jeb is still popular," Schroth said of the 2000 election, "it is difficult to imagine voters would reject his brother."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
How Floridians view the affirmative action issue and a measure of the candidats vying for Florida's U.S. Senate seat.