Janet Reno had the highest name recognition among Democrats.
TAMPA - Janet Reno, best known of the potential candidates, is the runaway leader in the initial stages of the Democratic primary campaign for governor, a new poll suggests. Reno also had the narrowest margin among the Democrats when matched one-on-one against Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who is running for re-election next year.
But the poll contains hints that, as some Democrats have said, Reno might not be the party's best shot against Bush. Any of the Democrats would have a long way to go to have hope of unseating Bush - in one-on-one matchups, he outran each by margins of 15 percentage points to 31 points. But two potential candidates, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa and former Vietnam ambassador Douglas ``Pete'' Peterson, held Bush to less than 50 percent of the vote in their pairings.
Peterson, who just returned from Hanoi, has opened a campaign bank account but says he hasn't firmly decided whether he's in the race. Neither Davis nor Reno has opened an account, but both say they are seriously considering whether to run. Despite his wins against the Democrats, Bush's personal popularity in the poll continued a decline. Just under half the voters surveyed, 49 percent, said they have a favorable impression of Bush. That's down from an April 1999 high of 59 percent, and the first time it has dropped under 50 percent since before he took office.
The Tampa Tribune/WFLA, News Channel 8, poll questioned 625 randomly selected registered voters in telephone interviews July 27-30. The results have an error margin of 4 percentage points. Questions about the Democratic primary covered a sample of 409 likely Democratic primary voters, with a slightly higher error of margin. Democrats said the drop in Bush's popularity shows he is vulnerable to a challenge. ``Jeb's got a problem,'' said state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe, referring to the popularity figures. ``What's interesting is that you've got two people in the field who, even though they're not well-known, Jeb can't pull 50 percent against them. That's a danger sign for him.''
Bush and Reno are familiar to those polled - only 1 percent didn't know Bush's name, and 3 percent didn't know Reno's. But large majorities failed to recognize the names of the other Democrats - Davis, Peterson, state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride. Among those who did recognize Reno's name, more had an unfavorable impression of her than a favorable one - 37 percent to 32 percent, with 28 percent neutral. Those ``high negatives'' can be a problem, said Brad Coker of Mason Dixon Polling & Research Inc., which did the poll. ``While Bush's continued slippage is a sign of vulnerability, Reno does not appear to be the ideal candidate to take advantage of the situation,'' he said.
Coker pointed out that in a Bush- Reno matchup, comparatively few voters are undecided - only 7 percent - making Bush's margin stronger. But against other Democrats, with Bush still winning by large margins, undecided categories range from 20 percent and higher, meaning those candidates could gain ground. Bush's allies said the poll results showing a drop in popularity were not a sign of weakness. The numbers are encouraging, considering ``the barrage of attacks against the governor launched by the Democrats and covered by the media on an almost daily basis,'' said campaign manager Karen Unger.
``Polls are going to come and go; there's going to be a million of them, and [popularity ratings] will fluctuate,'' she said. Reno, interviewed briefly while on her way to catch a plane Wednesday, said she couldn't comment without studying the poll numbers. Peterson couldn't be reached Wednesday. Davis said he finds the poll ``encouraging - it reflects what I'm hearing from people around the state, and that is a growing dissatisfaction with Jeb Bush as our governor.''
McBride, a longtime Democratic activist who is making his first foray into electoral politics, showed little sign in the poll of having made his name known among rank-and-file Democrats. ``I'm pretty much where I thought I would be - about where a campaign like mine starts,'' said McBride. Jones said the poll ``has very little meaning 13 months out from the primary and 15 months out from the general election. I'm getting my message out to people, and when I leave the room, they're supporting me.''
Frankel said the only important figures in the poll ``are the ones that have to do with Jeb Bush. He's obviously vulnerable.''
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761
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By WILLIAM MARCH
By WILLIAM MARCH