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Historic battle leaves a changing Florida changed

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000

The image appears familiar, yet the changes are unmistakable.

Florida will deliver its 25 electoral votes to George W. Bush just as it was expected to do a year ago. There still is a popular Republican governor, who now happens to be the president-elect's younger brother. And Republicans remain in firm control of the Legislature.

But Florida looks decidedly different in the wake of the historic battle over the presidency. Deep scars now crease its sunny face of theme parks and beaches.

The state is sharply divided along political and racial lines. Republicans are escalating their attacks on the Florida Supreme Court. Democrats are portraying the Legislature as an arm of the Bush campaign, and the credibility of the state's elections system is in shambles.

The battle has affected individuals as well as institutions.

Gov. Jeb Bush, whose approval ratings have dropped slightly but remain high, no longer appears untouchable if he runs for re-election in two years. Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who became internationally recognizable for her role in the post-election fight, has watched her political fortunes plummet. State Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead faces an aggressive effort to remove him.

"I think it is going to be very difficult to overcome this," University of Florida political science professor Richard Scher said Wednesday of the post-election fallout.

There are efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to find a silver lining.

After a presidential race so tight it took the courts to determine the winner, no one will label Florida as a solidly Republican state. Democrats emerged more united than they have been in years. Now the party also may have an easier time attracting quality candidates and raising money.

"I think there has been a lot of mythology about Florida, and one element of that mythology early in 2000 was that Florida was a Bush state and it was not going to be contested and you were not going to see any candidates after Labor Day," U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said.

Republicans still can claim victory in the presidential race. They won two additional state House seats and held onto three targeted congressional seats. They also point to the relatively high-minded debate in the Florida House on appointing a second slate of presidential electors as evidence that legislators will be able to move on. And there is an overwhelming eagerness from Bush and state legislators to move beyond the presidential race.

"We're going to put the pieces back together, go back to our committees and craft the solutions people need," said Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa.

But Florida is changing faster than either party can calculate the impact.

The state's residents are getting older. That's bad for Democrats. They see some of their most loyal supporters, New Dealers from the Roosevelt era who live in sprawling South Florida condominium complexes, dying off and being replaced by a larger generation of retirees who are more likely to be Republican.

Florida also is becoming more Hispanic. There are roughly the same number of Hispanic residents as African-Americans now. In the past, that would have been bad for Democrats because most Hispanics were Cuban Republicans in South Florida. Now there are about as many non-Cuban Hispanics as Cubans, and exit polls indicate most of them voted for Gore.

Then mix in Florida's fondness for ticket-splitting. Jeb Bush won the governorship in 1998 as Graham coasted to re-election. George W. Bush won Florida by fewer than 1,000 votes as moderate Democrat Bill Nelson defeated conservative Republican Bill McCollum in the Senate race by more than 280,000 votes.

No wonder George W. Bush and Gore spent much of their time in Florida cruising the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, courting suburban, middle-of-the-road families.

"If you're a centrist today, you're probably in good shape," Comptroller Bob Milligan said. "That's obviously where people want to be."

The trick for Jeb Bush now is to get back to the middle in general and restore faith with black voters in particular.

The Florida governor won 14 percent of the black vote two years ago. But two black legislators staged a sit-in at the Capitol in January over Bush's One Florida initiative, which abolished consideration of race in university admissions and public contracting. More than 11,000 protesters marched in Tallahassee.

The two legislators who held the sit-in, Sen. Kendrick Meek of Miami and Rep. Tony Hill of Jacksonville, toured 31 cities this year to encourage African-American residents to vote. Turnout among black voters was more than 50 percent greater than in 1996, and Gore won 93 percent of the African-American vote.

But as a result of the post-election controversy, many black voters fear their vote may not have been included. Two of Florida's three African-American members of Congress, Reps. Carrie Meek of Miami and Alcee Hastings of Fort Lauderdale, complained Wednesday that the U.S. Supreme Court unfairly prevented a manual recount that could have tallied the votes of their constituents.

"Rather than being a place where presidents choose judges, these were judges choosing presidents," Hastings said. "This leaves a stain on democracy. It's going to take a long time for the healing process. The people are going to be left saying, "I am not certain this guy (Bush) won the election."'

But it will be up to Jeb Bush to reach out to Florida's black residents. He was strongly criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, for supporting his brother and the Legislature's plan to appoint a second set of electors.

The Florida governor would not comment about the presidential race Wednesday. He said this month he has a record that he can sell in minority communities on subjects such as education, health care and recruitment of minority businesses for state contracts. "This will all pass," Jeb Bush said. "When people look at the record they can make their determination about how I have served this state and all of its diversity."

Scher, the UF political science professor, predicted it won't be easy for the Florida governor to move beyond the election controversy.

"I think it's going to come down on him," he said. "It's going to be very hard for him to explain away his role in ushering his brother into the White House under very difficult circumstances. There are too many unanswered questions about what happened in Florida."

There are challenges for the Democrats as well.

There is no obvious choice to challenge Bush in 2002. Graham says he is happy in the Senate. Attorney General Bob Butterworth says he has no interest in running. That means Democrats will have to turn to a younger generation that has not established itself.

Democrats say the election saga has generated enormous enthusiasm among their ranks.

"I've attended more rallies in the last 30 days than I have in the 26 years I've lived in Florida," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. "I received more e-mails and more phone calls in the last two weeks than in my 13 years of public office. I've never seen this kind of energy."

Now that energy will have to be transferred from anger and frustration over the presidential race into an issue-oriented agenda that will appeal to voters.

Bill McBride, outgoing chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, used his farewell speech before 1,400 business leaders Wednesday to offer some advice to fellow Democrats after the post-election battle.

"Chill out," said the managing partner of Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm. "We are better than Republicans. We are better than Democrats. We are, after all, Americans."

- Staff writers Julie Hauserman, Shelby Oppel and Jeff Harrington contributed to this report.

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