Fla. Democrats prepare to tackle Gov. Bush

Fla. Democrats prepare to tackle Gov. Bush By Dick Polman INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

MIAMI - Janet Reno, clad in azure blue and wearing a glacial semi-smile, planted her feet on the hotel corridor carpet and just stood there, very tall and eerily still, gazing with detachment at the power groupies swirling around her.

Lots of these hungry Florida Democrats do not see Reno defeating Republican incumbent Jeb Bush in next year's gubernatorial contest. In fact, many think she would be a disaster as their party's candidate.

But they will worry about that later. At a Democratic fund-raising event the other night, they were pleased just to pursue a celebrity moment.

"Hi, Janet! It's George. Remember me? From law school?" (She nodded, vaguely, in reply.)
"Hi, Janet! I'm running for the state Senate! Having an event July 17! Hope you can make it!"
(Her silence seemed noncommittal.)

"May I hug you? It's a great pleasure of my life just to meet you!" (The man's wife snapped a picture, and the stab of light caromed off Reno's spectacles. Her left hand shook, evidence of her Parkinson's disease. She steadied it by gripping her handbag.)

Soon enough, Florida Democrats know, it will be time to get down to the serious business of exacting revenge on Jeb Bush for his alleged political and governing sins, for his role - however elusive - in the 2000 election's aftermath, for his sibling ties to the Bush in Washington.

This will be the most crucial race in the nation next year and could cost $40 million. At stake will be control of a state that could play a pivotal role in the next presidential race, as well.

Democrats sense that Jeb Bush has been wounded by his conservative proclivities. Problem is they don't know how to administer the coup de grace - nor who could best do the job.

Reno, assuming that she runs, is easily the best known of the seven Democrats who might joust for the nomination in a primary. She can raise national money and stoke the diehard party voters.

But her Clinton-era baggage, acquired during her controversial stint as attorney general, might deter swing voters - 17 percent of the state electorate - who do not necessarily see Clintonian ties as an asset.

"Do I think Jeb is a pushover? No way," said Mitch Caesar, the party chairman in Broward County, a major Democratic stronghold. "But do I think he's vulnerable? Yeah.

"His policies are too conservative for most Floridians," Caesar said. "If we can make Bush's policies the central issue, we win. But if the spotlight shifts somewhere else, our chance of success is dim."

Translation: Should Reno become the nominee, the Republicans would make the election a referendum on her record as attorney general. It is a record that included the decisions to storm the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and to return Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. (Two-thirds of Florida's Latinos are Cuban Americans, and Bush is outpolling Reno by 10 to 1 among them.)

"We need the right candidate," said lawyer Jack Latona, a Democrat and former city official in Fort Lauderdale, "because Jeb is more vulnerable than he ought to be - for things he didn't do.

"The 2000 election was screwed up, but it wasn't his fault. The governor has nothing to do with the election process, but it has rubbed off on him, anyway. And his brother's shortcomings may rub off on him."

Even though Democrats are junking their contention that the election was "stolen," emotions remain raw and should guarantee a strong anti-Bush turnout next year among Florida's black voters. The bigger question, however, is this: Will swing voters be turned off by Bush's policy record in Florida?

Polls do not indicate that the voters have soured on the governor. On the contrary, his broad popularity suggests at least tacit backing for his conservative agenda, which includes a private-school voucher program, tax cuts for the rich and vetoes on social spending, a law that makes it easier to fire public employees, and another that speeds up the death-penalty process.

"Jeb has been real successful in putting a human face on his policies," Joe Garcia, a Miami Democratic strategist, said. "He got rid of the state tax on stocks and bonds - which affects only the richest 4 percent - but he'll put some senior citizens [on camera] as the 'typical' beneficiaries.

"His people are very clever at imagery. I hope we can become just as clever during the campaign." Democrats also are toying with a "King Jeb" campaign theme. This governor has managed to amass more power than his predecessors - with help from his GOP legislature, for example, he has a huge say over the choice of judges, state university appointees, state contractors, and state workers - and some Democrats trace this trend to a character flaw.

"It's his way or no way," Latona said. "He's smart as hell, he cares deeply, and he knows every last crumb of information, but, as a result, he tends to say, 'Here's this great thing I'm doing,' and if you are not appropriately grateful or receptive, there is tension." But some fear that grousing about "King Jeb" will not click with the average voter, who sees, instead, the smart, engaged governor on television.

As Jan Howard, a Democratic activist from Brevard County, put it: "Part of the hump that we still have to get over is the sheer fact of his incumbency." So who can knock him off?

Maybe U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who trails only Reno among Democratic voters, or Tampa lawyer Bill McBride or Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox or State Sen. Daryl Jones (whose 1998 bid to become former President Bill Clinton's Air Force secretary was derailed by questions about his flying record).

There's also former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, the current U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. But he's 65, and some Democrats think he would look bad against the energetic Bush on TV.

Then there's Lois Frankel, state House Democratic leader. Some Democrats fear that there's no way a Jewish woman from South Florida can win a statewide race.

All except Peterson spoke briefly at the Miami fund-raiser, where Reno's entry rocked the ballroom - with a major, orchestrated, assist from her backers.

Then she delivered a series of homilies in hushed monotone. "It is people who should count in this world and people who should count in this state," she said.

By the time her last soft syllable had landed, most of the applause had died. Yet anything could happen in a close race.

It could be something over which Bush has no control, such as a continuing drought. Some Democrats think if the drought persists next year and water restrictions are imposed, voters may lash out at Bush for failing to stop rampant development.

But, said Mary Kumpe, a GOP activist in Sarasota, "the truth is we don't know if this race will be fought on local issues or if we'll just be surrogates for the national parties. "All we know," she added, "is it will be the fiercest election Florida has ever seen."

Dick Polman's e-mail address is dpolman@phillynews.com .

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