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Spirited Showdown

In the final debate before the election, Bush and MacKay make their differences clear.

Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, left, and Jeb Bush shake hands after their hourlong debate Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [Times photo: Jonathan Newton]

By ADAM C. SMITH and PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1998


ST. PETERSBURG -- It didn't bother Buddy Mackay that his opponent's famous mom was sitting in the front row.

He went on the attack Tuesday night against front-runner Jeb Bush and tried hard to use the last statewide debate to portray himself as a scrappy fighter who will protect Florida from the extremes of the Republican Legislature.

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The surprise presence of Barbara Bush in the Mahaffey Theater did not stop MacKay from repeating his suggestions that Bush is in the pocket of special interests and has a history of questionable business deals.

But those accusations were only a small part of a lively and sometimes contentious debate that ranged from school prayer to Bill Clinton to abortion.

Floridians saw two confident, polished candidates. Bush calmly stepped away from the podium and spoke earnestly of Floridians needing new vision and ideas to go into the next century.

An authoritative MacKay stayed behind the podium and talked of a track record of more jobs, less crime and better public schools. He said Floridians need a governor who will stand up to extreme agendas and powerful special interests.

"I feel like Harry Truman must have felt," said MacKay, who lags behind Bush in public opinion polls and campaignfund raising. "He wasn't a slick media candidate bankrolled by big money, but you know what? He hung in there and he won."

By and large, the debate was civil and even cordial, but there were flashpoints. Moderator Tim Russert asked Bush about a school prayer bill that Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed two years ago, an issue that Bush has consistently sidestepped in recent weeks.

Tuesday, Bush surprised MacKay. He would have vetoed that particular bill, Bush said, but as governor he would work with lawmakers to craft a better one. As MacKay questioned whether Bush was waffling, Bush cut him off.

"Your problem is you're left out," Bush said, amid cheers and laughter from the audience. "You're not part of the process up in Tallahassee. I would have a relationship with those guys and build the best possible bill."

MacKay didn't miss a beat: "That's the scariest thing you've said all night because the job of the governor is to be a check and balance with the Legislature," he said, winning cheers himself.

MacKay repeatedly stressed that Bush as governor would offer no check on the agenda of Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature. Floridians could expect countless conservative initiatives to sail into law, from abortion restrictions to school prayer.

Produced by the St. Petersburg Times and Florida NBC, the debate offered a striking contrast between the brash Bush of four years ago and the gentler Bush of today. For instance, in 1994 he attacked Gov. Lawton Chiles for not using the death penalty more aggressively.

When asked about the death penalty on Tuesday, Bush calmly noted that it's rarely used and that he supports it as a deterrent.

MacKay, on the other hand, initially sounded like he was boasting as he said the Chiles-MacKay administration had put more inmates to death than any other administration in modern Florida history.

"That is not something I say with great pride, but it is something I say to make it clear that Gov. Chiles and I have been carrying out the law," said MacKay, painted by the Bush campaign as soft on crime.

Tuesday's contest pitted two dramatically different, and perhaps equally effective, generational styles.

Bush borrowed a page from Bill Clinton, speaking conversationally, wandering from the podium and ad-libbing his closing remarks.

"Floridians are finding solutions in their communities. They think that the politicians in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., just don't get it," Bush said.

MacKay, who faltered in their first televised debate, looked every bit the seasoned public servant, self-assured at his podium.

* * *

"Buddy was better than I've ever seen him," said Gov. Chiles.

Among other famous faces at the debate: U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, running mates Frank Brogan and Rick Dantzler, state Reps. Rudy Bradley, D-St. Petersburg, and Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, and state Sen. Jim Scott, R-Fort Lauderdale.

MacKay did not harp on Bush's controversial business deals, but he made sure to mention them prominently, including:

Bush's involvement in a company that sold water pumps to Nigeria, while his father was president. The deal required U.S.-backed loans, most of which have not been repaid. Bush has said he was paid nothing for the Nigerian deal, but he has provided few details on what he did to earn nearly $650,000 from the pump company.

The Jacksonville credit card company, Ideon, that went under and laid off hundreds of workers while Bush was on the board of directors.

Bush responded dismissively, early in the hour asking for a show of hands from people more interested in issues than negative politics. A smattering of hands rose.

When MacKay persisted in reminding viewers about Bush's business dealings -- it's the only experience Bush has and needs to be examined, MacKay said -- Bush responded with a joke.

"We're going to set up a charter school for people who distort the facts when they run for office, and we're going to give Buddy MacKay the first voucher."

The question of vouchers, using public school money for private schools, offered one of the sharpest differences of the evening.

MacKay said Bush's plan to reward successful schools and punish failing ones, would hurt inner-city schools the most.

"When you have a school in trouble, the answer is not to stigmatize that school and to give resources to the school that is making the A-grade, the school that is not in trouble," said MacKay. He said Bush's plan to let parents at failing schools use taxpayer money for private schools would destroy Florida's public school system.

Bush scoffed at that notion. "My guess is that when you have chronically failing schools and there is a consequence, that parents would actually have a choice, that you would find there would be a command focus on these inner-city schools," he said.

Asked about Bill Clinton and impeachment, both said Congress should review the fact impartially. But each showed his allegiances.

MacKay said that Clinton's affair was wrong and a bad example for children but that he has been an excellent president and a strong friend to Florida. The president is expected to help raise money for MacKay next week.

Bush responded by invoking his mother.

"My mom put it best, when she said what goes on in your house matters a lot more than what goes on in the White House.

"The problem with (Clinton) is that we used to look up to the White House and say this is how it should be," Bush said. "The White House today is no longer a symbol of righteousness."

Abortion provided another sharp contrast. Russert asked MacKay about Chiles' vetoing a ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortion procedures.

"I am pro-choice. Jeb Bush is not. The Legislature is Republican. There's going to be bill after bill after bill sent to the governor's office, and I will veto any restriction on a woman's right to choose."

MacKay said he supported Chiles' partial-birth veto because it made no exception when a mother's health was at stake.

Bush opposed that exception. "Health opens up all sorts of reasons women would be able to use this horrific procedure," Bush said.

MacKay, buoyed by new poll results showing the race getting closer, was ebullient after the debate:

"The gap is tightening. I think Jeb can hear the footsteps."

Was he rattled to see Barbara Bush, America's favorite mother, in the front row?

"You know," MacKay said, smiling, "I didn't even think about that."

 

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