By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 10, 1999
Vice President Al Gore, locked in a tight race with challenger Bill Bradley in New Hampshire, will find a warmer reception this weekend in Florida.
While both candidates for the Democratic nomination for president will address the Florida Democratic Convention in Orlando, Gore will be received like an old friend while Bradley still is a stranger to many party activists.
The vice president, who has visited Florida nearly 40 times since the Clinton administration took office in 1993, has secured support from county chairmen in areas that are essential for a Democrat to carry in order to win the state.
Interviews this week with 16 county chairmen who represent half of the counties Clinton won in 1996 found only one Bradley supporter: Pinellas County Chairwoman Nancy Whitman. A dozen support or lean toward Gore, while three said they were undecided.
Gore counts among his supporters the party leaders in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach in South Florida. The margin of victory in those counties can determine whether a Democrat wins or loses a statewide election, and party activists in those areas can turn out thousands of voters.
"The vice president looks good; he sounds good," said Miami-Dade Democratic Chairman Joe Geller. "I have no doubt the vice president will successfully make the transition from being seen as the best vice president this country has ever had to being seen as somebody with the ability, compassion and leadership to be our president."
The situation in Florida mirrors the battle between Gore and Bradley in much of the country. The vice president has most of the party structure on his side, while the former New Jersey senator portrays himself as an outsider.
Yet grass-roots organization is crucial to winning elections. Gore's attention to the party machine and his commitment to Florida will be on display Saturday.
President Clinton, who was asked by Gore to attend the convention, will address the delegates several hours before the vice president. Gore campaign advisers have been holding conference calls with party chairmen in key counties, and campaign manager Tony Coelho recently held several meetings with activists in South Florida.
While the state party canceled plans for a straw poll in return for appearances by both Gore and Bradley, the Gore campaign will seek signed pledges from county chairmen. Florida Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead estimates at least three of every four county chairmen support Gore, and Gore allies think the number is higher.
The Democratic nomination could be decided before Florida's March 14 primary. By then, two-thirds of the pledged national convention delegates already will have been allocated because many states moved up their primaries.
But Florida could be Gore's safety net if Bradley does well in the early primaries and is still fighting in mid-March. The vice president has outraised Bradley here 2-1, and a recent St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll shows him leading 54 percent to 32 percent.
"I think it's going to be a real horse race," Alachua County Chairwoman Helen Strain, who is undecided, said of the national contest for the nomination. "I suspect we will have a primary with both Gore and Bradley still in it."
Others said Bradley's strong challenge may eventually benefit the vice president.
"If Bill Bradley had not decided to run, Al Gore would have stayed in Washington as vice president and not started campaigning until July," Palm Beach County Chairman Monte Friedkin said. "They have got their act together now. Three months ago, they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off."
Democrats also insist that Gore or Bradley could win Florida in November 2000 even if the Republican nominee is George W. Bush. The GOP front-runner is Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's older brother, and Jeb Bush has his own statewide machine working for the Texas governor.
Jeb Bush's approval ratings are high, and his brother has raised more than $4-million in Florida -- more than three times what Gore has raised in the state.
But Democrats said Gore reflects Floridians' views on issues such as education and the environment. By the 2000 general election, some said, voters could be dissatisfied with Jeb Bush's efforts to grade public schools and offer tuition vouchers.
"A lot of people are becoming a little disenchanted with the governor and his plans for where he is going to take Florida," Hernando Democratic Chairman Al Jenkins said. "People are beginning to think, "Is this what we want?"'
Whitman, the Pinellas County Democratic chairwoman, was the only one of the 16 county leaders interviewed who backs Bradley. She said she likes Bradley's proposal to make health insurance available to every American, a plan Gore contends is too expensive.
Unlike other county leaders, Whitman thinks Gore is tainted by Clinton's impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"I like Al Gore a lot, and I struggled with this," Whitman said. "I just think he is too entrenched in the Beltway, he's got Clinton wrapped around him -- and I want to win."
While Whitman received an e-mail from Bradley's campaign about his convention speech on Sunday, she had to call his New Jersey headquarters for information. But a top aide to a member of Florida's congressional delegation called her about Gore's weekend plans.
"They just assumed we were all Gore people," Whitman said. "I said, "Oops, wrong team."'