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Candidates seem to reassure some, sway few

Around Tampa Bay, many viewers say the candidate they already backed won the debate. But many don't watch.

Andrea and Russell Allen were among the audience members who were allowed to ask the candidates a question. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1998

William Graveley doesn't even want to vote.

Sitting at home in St. Petersburg Tuesday night watching the gubernatorial debate with a friend, the Tyrone Middle School teacher said he thinks Jeb Bush's voucher proposal will ruin the state's public school system.

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He doesn't think Buddy MacKay has done enough for African-American voters like himself for the past eight years. But he plans to vote for MacKay anyway, because he does not like the alternative.

"I'm afraid Bush's lack of experience is going to be detrimental," said Graveley, 39. "I think he's going to be for the rich, for big business. Not that Buddy MacKay is going to do much for African-Americans, but at least we have a chance."

Yet Gravely's friend, retired public school employee Ed Kirkland, said he is so sick of the current state of government that he's ready to give MacKay's Republican opponent a chance. He was impressed by seeing Bush visit black churches during the campaign.

The two friends had only one thing in common Tuesday night:Nothing the candidates said changed their minds.

Throughout the bay area the debate drew much the same reaction.

Bush supporters picked Bush as the winner, MacKay supporters picked MacKay, and undecided voters said they remained undecided.

"I think a lot of people are wishing for a third choice," said V.P. Walling, 24, a political science major from the University of South Florida who attended the debate.

He and other students from USF who watched the debate in person picked Bush as the more polished candidate by a wide margin.

"Obviously Jeb Bush is the better speaker, more attractive, more articulate," said Julie Berry, 22, who is majoring in public relations at USF.

"Jeb Bush has a little more charisma," said Theresa DiPerna, 33, who is studying political science at USF. "But I don't vote based on charisma. I vote based on the record."

Yet Kelly Stigall, a 31-year-old broadcast journalism major, said she believed MacKay's continued attacks on Bush's record of business deals boomeranged to damage his own campaign.

USF professor Susan MacManus, who teaches a course in local and state politics, watched the debate at Brandon TownCenter, as part of a community forum group of about 30 people. They, too, were disappointed in MacKay's aggressive questioning of Bush's background.

William Gravely of St. Petersburg watches the debate at home. Concerned about Jeb Bush's lack of experience, he plans to vote for Buddy MacKay. [Times photo: Pam Royal]

"Several people who said they liked him were saddened that he did that," she said.

MacManus said she believed this debate was the most civil of the series. She praised Bush's closing statement. And she said that for her, the highlight was the testy exchange on school prayer in which Bush boasted he could work with the Republican-led Legislature to craft a prayer bill and MacKay said, "That's the scariest thing you've said all night."

Yet Bush came across as anything but scary to the audience.

"He took advantage of the medium," Walling said, noting how Bush wandered out from behind the lectern "and did his "come to me, my people' gesture."

A MacKay supporter, Walling contended Bush "was more style than substance."

"Had the debate been on radio, then Buddy MacKay would've been the clear winner," he said.

That was hardly the opinion among the 15 to 20 Republicans who gathered at the South Tampa home of Norma Hernandez and her husband, Dr. Larazo Hernandez, to watch the debate.

Smiles, nods and friendly elbows to the arm made it clear they liked what they heard when Bush spoke. They especially liked a tough question directed to MacKay and how Bush kept the heat on during his rebuttal.

"He's throwing it back," Mrs. Hernandez said. "Very nice."

Afterward she called Bush's performance "very classy. Very elegant. He did everything with taste. I am very pleased."

Her friend William Cordova, a clerk in the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, said Bush "was always right there with the answers."

"By the answers they gave and the body language and the steadiness of his voice, I believe Jeb Bush is the better man," Cordova said.

As MacKay and Bush debated the candidates' past and the state's future, 38-year-old Frank Light was raising a mug of beer to his lips and watching an old Muhammad Ali boxing match on television at the Palm Harbor Ale House.

Light, an electrical supplies salesman from Orlando, was like many others at the bar Tuesday: He didn't watch the debate, isn't going to vote and thinks little about politics. Most of what he knows about the gubernatorial race comes from negative TV ads, and it has been enough to sour him on the entire political process.

"They're spending a lot more money on being negative than on saying what they would do for you and me," Light said. "That really turns me off."

Of the more than a dozen televisions in the bar, none were tuned to the debate. MacKay and Bush were little more than a technicolor flicker on the way from ESPN to ESPN2.

One bartender who overheard a reporter's question seemed momentarily perplexed.

"What debate?" she asked.
-- Times staff writer Geoff Dougherty contributed to this report.


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