Bush, MacKay set for final showdown
By PETER WALLSTEN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 1998
T. PETERSBURG -- For two weeks, Democrat Buddy MacKay has fired almost daily shots at Republican Jeb Bush's record, hoping to make the Nov. 3 election a referendum on trust.
The exchange should continue with new intensity on statewide television tonight at 7, when the two candidates meet for their third and final debate of the 1998 governor's race.
Sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, the hourlong debate will be broadcast from the Bayfront Center's Mahaffey Theater on the state's NBC affiliates (WFLA-Ch. 8 in the Tampa Bay area) and rebroadcast on PBS, MSNBC and C-SPAN.
The debate marks the last time voters will see the two candidates on the same stage, and sponsors predict the television audience could match the 1-million who watched Bush debate Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994.
Bush and MacKay likely will discuss the year's major issues: education, health care, urban redevelopment and public safety.
But expect MacKay to go on the attack. With his campaign bank account scraping bottom and the election still two weeks away, this could be one of his last chances to cut into Bush's double-digit lead in the polls. He promises renewed questions about Bush's business dealings, including his role in $74-million in water pump sales to Nigeria, and his position on the board of a failed Jacksonville credit card servicing company.
At a news conference outside the Mahaffey Theater Monday, MacKay promised to continue questioning Bush's controversial business deals until Bush gives answers. If Bush insists on saying his business experience qualifies him for governor, MacKay said, Bush needs to explain to voters how he made his money and with whom he made it.
"Governing Florida is an awesome responsibility that should be trusted only to someone who is open and honest with the people," MacKay said. "I have dedicated my life to the people of Florida and I know what it takes to be governor. I've got a proven record of experience and I've always told people exactly where I stand."
"Buddy MacKay's going to keep talking about (Bush's business dealings) until Jeb Bush answers these questions," said MacKay's campaign manager, Robin Rorapaugh. "Every time Buddy MacKay debates Jeb Bush, Buddy MacKay gets better."
Bush's job is to look like the incumbent. His campaign insists that MacKay's aggressive stance is having no effect with the public.
"Jeb will try to stick to the issues," said his campaign manager, Sally Bradshaw. "MacKay's strategy won't change. His problem is, he's running out of time to get traction with the negative attacks."
Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, is the moderator tonight, just as he was four years ago when Chiles declared that the "old he-coon" would come from behind to beat Bush.
MacKay will need to surpass Chiles' performance four years ago. His 17- to 20-point deficit in the polls is much larger than Chiles' deficit at this point in 1994. Bush's success this year campaigning in Democratic strongholds, coupled with apathy among Democrats in the wake of the Clinton scandal, could lead many voters to believe the race is all but decided. When Bush and MacKay took questions two weeks ago on live TV from studio audiences in Orlando, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami, they competed with the Major League Baseball playoffs and a new episode of NBC's hit sitcom Friends.
Tonight's debate, up against Wheel of Fortune and Inside Edition, will feature questions from Russert and undecided voters in the audience. Unlike four years ago, the two candidates will not ask each other questions. The broadcast will last an hour, with four commercial breaks.
Besides issues, appearance will matter tonight. Bush will try to look youthful, energetic and poised. MacKay will try to paint himself as a tried-and-tested man of experience.
In the first televised encounter, the Democrat looked nervous as he awkwardly tossed out questions about Bush's past. In the second debate last week, broadcast on the radio, MacKay was much more effective in his attacks. He used every chance to question his opponent.
When an audience member asked about his plan to reform HMOs, MacKay quickly took the opportunity to attack Bush for his relationship with a South Florida HMO owner who skipped the country after stealing $200-million from Medicare.
Like he did in 1994, Bush fell into the trap of lecturing his opponent on negative attacks.
On the issues, Bush and MacKay have plenty of differences to show. On education, MacKay will talk about his plan to increase funding and reduce class size and he will attack Bush's plan to give taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers to kids in failing public schools. Both candidates will brag about their plans to reform HMOs and rebuild Florida's inner cities.
Bush will likely criticize MacKay for representing the "politics of the past" and the Chiles/MacKay administration for not doing enough to improve education and fight drug use.
MacKay will talk about his support for requiring waiting periods and criminal background checks for buyers at gun shows and attack Bush for being equivocal on the issue. And if past performances are any indication, MacKay will criticize Bush for not clearly offering a stance on school prayer.
Above all, MacKay will once again seek every opportunity to talk about business deals. Promised MacKay campaign manager Robin Rorapaugh: "This is not dead."