By Edward Walsh Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, June 30, 2001; Page A03
MIAMI BEACH – The political war that began here last November has never really ended, in this sprawling state where the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was decided. The bitterness has lingered, particularly among Democrats who believe that their candidate, Al Gore, carried Florida and should be sitting in the White House instead of George W. Bush.
Florida Democrats will not get another crack at President Bush until 2004. But they have their own Bush – the president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush – who will present a more immediate target when he seeks reelection in 2002.
So about 1,500 Democrats gathered in a hotel ballroom here last Saturday night for a fundraising dinner that marked the unofficial opening in the next phase of the war between Florida Democrats and the Bush family.
It was a night of fiery rhetoric, pointedly directed at Florida's governor. Six potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates spoke, and only former attorney general Janet Reno did not mention the incumbent Republican by name.
With Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, as the featured attraction, the dinner raised $750,000. It was a record for Florida Democrats and an early indication of the intensity that already surrounds a race that seems destined to be viewed as a referendum on tax cutting and other conservative policies of both Bush brothers.
Republicans are watching this closely and doing everything they can to insulate Jeb Bush. As part of the early maneuvering, the GOP-controlled state Legislature approved two changes in Florida election law that Democratic critics charge were designed to smooth Bush's path to reelection.
The provisions were added to a widely praised election reform measure to correct many of the flaws in the state's voting procedures, which were revealed by the marathon recount and court battles of 2000.
One would eliminate in 2002 – and only in 2002 – Florida's second primary, a runoff between the two top vote-getters if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in the first primary. Under the other provision, out-of-state individual campaign contributions will no longer be included when calculating the amount of state matching funds candidates receive.
Some of the most popular Democrats in Florida history, including former governor Reubin Askew, the late senator and governor Lawton Chiles and Sen. Bob Graham, also a former governor, survived their first statewide races because of the second primary. In theory, its elimination could boost the chances that next year's Democratic nominee will be one of the most liberal of the contenders, strong in the Democratic bastion of South Florida but less appealing to swing voters in the central part of the state, where many expect the contest to be decided.
Saddled with such a candidate, Democrats would see a dilution in the impact of out-of-state contributions that are expected to pour into Florida next year in the effort to oust the first of the two Bush brothers from office.
"What Democrats are worried about is you could get a figure who plays well in South Florida but not in other parts of the state," said Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Republicans generally scoff at these suggestions. They note that the strongest advocates for eliminating the second primary included local supervisors of elections, many of them Democrats, who argued that the several million dollars that would be saved by dumping the second primary could be better used for other reforms aimed at averting a repeat of last year's election fiasco.
As for the decision to end the second primary only in 2002, when Bush will head the GOP ticket, Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney, a Republican, said that resulted from the natural caution of state legislators when tinkering with laws that could also affect their political futures.
"We don't know how doing away with the second primary is going to work," Feeney said. "When it comes to election reform, legislators are thinking of their own hide. We did not want to put ourselves in a box if it doesn't work."
But Feeney candidly acknowledges that Democrats "are closer to the mark" in suggesting that GOP lawmakers were thinking of Bush when they pushed through the ban on state matching funds for out-of-state contributions.
In 1998, Bush easily outspent his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, even though MacKay received more than $1.1 million in state matching funds and Bush has refused to accept public funding for his campaigns.
Although relatively little of MacKay's state funding was the result of matches to out-of-state contributions, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate can almost certainly count on a huge influx of money from angry Democrats around the country.
Bush, too, can expect generous financial support from out-of-state Republicans. By not accepting state matching funds, he will not be limited in how much he can spend.
"Anything you do to reduce public funding helps Jeb," Feeney said.
While Democrats complain about these two changes to election law, they maintain Bush is so vulnerable the new provisions will not make much difference.
"The Republicans' assumption is that the second primary produces the more mainstream candidate," said Karl Koch, a Democratic consultant. "They would like to run against someone who is not as mainstream. I don't buy that theory."
Reno is the wild card in the Democratic race. She has not announced she is running, but she is by far the best known of the potential candidates, and Democratic officials say she would be the initial front-runner for the nomination.
But some Democrats openly worry that Reno fits the description of the GOP's ideal Bush opponent. Hugely popular in her South Florida base, where she was a local prosecutor in Miami, she is a controversial figure with untested appeal elsewhere in the state. Her presumed fundraising prowess could be hampered by the change in state law.
Two other South Florida liberals are exploring the race: Florida House Minority Leader Lois J. Frankel of West Palm Beach and state Sen. Daryl L. Jones, from Miami.
The other potential candidates include U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa; Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox; Bill McBride, a prominent Tampa lawyer and decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam War; and Pete Peterson, a Vietnam prisoner of war who recently resigned as U.S. ambassador to that country to return to Florida and explore the race.
At this stage, both parties exude confidence about November 2002. Feeney, the GOP House speaker, said it would take "a national or a statewide calamity" for Bush to lose.
But Florida Democratic Chairman Bob Poe is equally confident, and he puts it in personal terms. Florida Democrats, Poe said, "are ready to take Jeb Bush out. After what happened in 2000, they know they can win it."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company