Published Sunday, September 2, 2001 ;
With each speech, Reno unveils her vision for Florida`We have got to beat Jeb Bush,' Reno tells Democrats.

In a ballroom packed with Democratic Party loyalists Thursday night, Janet Reno spoke about her Florida. She recalled boating down the Suwannee River, diving in the Keys, watching a brilliant Marco Island sunset. ``I love this state with all my heart and soul,'' she said. Then, as the party faithful waited in rapt silence, Reno added: ``We have got to beat Jeb Bush.''

The crowd of hundreds roared its approval, and during the next few minutes Reno offered a glimpse of the themes that would probably drive her campaign to oust the state's popular Republican governor. Although she is not expected to open a campaign account until Tuesday and has been coy about her plans, Reno has spent weeks touring the state, offering a firmly Democratic vision for the state's future. In speeches and interviews, the nation's first female attorney general has talked about revamping the state's education system to eliminate the new reliance on testing, guarding its environment, protecting its elderly and children, and limiting growth so ``it doesn't take two hours to drive from downtown Miami out to Kendall.''

For a woman most Americans know only as the nation's chief law enforcement officer -- consumed with the custody of Elián González, taking responsibility for the disastrous siege in Waco, Texas, and weighing the appointments of independent counsels -- this is the introduction of a new political leader. She has held only one elected office, as Dade County's state attorney. And she has been away from Florida for eight years. But months after her return from Washington, Reno is already drawing sharp contrasts between herself and the man she could unseat, pointing directly and indirectly to some of the most hotly debated aspects of his record. In her speech Thursday, Reno did not specifically mention Bush's rollback of affirmative action programs in state universities or resentment among black voters since last year's presidential election. But she signaled that blacks, her party's most important base and a group that was not enthusiastic about Democratic nominee Buddy MacKay in 1998, will be critical in her campaign.

``Let us make sure that that young, 18-year-old black lad is raised with a sense that he is somebody,'' she said. In an interview, Reno said she does not yet have a specific critique of the governor's One Florida plan -- which eliminated enrollment programs that took race into account in state colleges and universities -- but she does support affirmative action programs ``when they are done right.'' `It's possible to provide for affirmative action without sacrificing merit,'' she said. On protecting the Everglades, Reno suggested that Bush could be more vigorous in pursuing preservation programs. In general, Reno called on the state to do a better job guarding ``the mosaics of our environment'' -- the beaches, rivers and wetlands. Reno will also probably attack Bush for his initiatives to seize more power in appointing state judges. She told public defenders in Broward County on Friday that ensuring an independent judiciary is ``one of the reasons I started considering the possibility of running for governor.''

EDUCATION CONCERNS On education, Reno, like her potential Democratic opponents, is most critical of Bush's reliance on student testing to judge schools. She talks often about class size, teacher pay, early childhood education and school safety. ``We must make sure that all public schools in this county are excellent, and we must not siphon away any money from public schools for private schools,'' she told a mostly Haitian-American crowd in North Miami on Saturday night. ``We must not just focus on FCAT tests, but what's important to make students competitive in the world. And we must attract the best teachers and pay them good wages.'' She speaks often of working with police agencies, teachers and parents to make schools more secure and comfortable for students. Reno frequently mentions domestic violence.

She urged the Gainesville audience not to forget a woman who ``is a victim of domestic violence, nor her children who will only watch violence recycled through their lives.'' Florida's massive elderly population seems to factor into Reno's philosophies as a candidate, as well. She talks about looking for ways to let seniors live at home rather than in nursing homes, and told her audience Thursday to ``make sure we take care of that fragile elderly person who is sick from abuse and neglect, and never let it happen again.'' Perhaps the issue that most separates Reno from the pack, Democrat and Republican alike, is the death penalty. She opposes it, putting her at odds with the majority of Floridians. Reno said that as Dade state attorney, she sought the death penalty in some cases, saying it was ``a moral dilemma.'' If Reno enters the race, polls have shown she would likely easily win the Democratic nomination against a potentially crowded field of respected candidates, including former Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson of the Panhandle, Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, state Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami and state Rep. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach.

CALLED TOO LIBERAL But some in the party's establishment say Reno is too liberal and too controversial, and would stand little chance of defeating Bush in a general election. They fear a campaign in which Republicans, and perhaps even her Democratic rivals, would focus on her record as attorney general, including the bloody siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. Peterson, a Vietnam War POW who is considered a centrist, did not focus on issues during his speech at the same Democratic fundraiser in Gainesville at which Reno spoke Thursday. Instead, he chose to tout himself as the only Democrat with the credentials to win support from conservative and moderate swing voters. He did not mention Reno by name, but Peterson aides clearly see her as their man's biggest obstacle to the nomination. ``While I have enormous respect for my colleagues here tonight, I am the person who can send Jeb Bush into retirement,'' Peterson said. Davis, another centrist who some party leaders say would be more viable against Bush than Reno, acknowledged in an interview that having Reno in the race would impede other Democrats from getting voters' attention. ``It just makes it harder for me to get my message out,'' he said. Republicans, however, relish the prospect of a Reno candidacy, largely because they believe they can pin her to the Clinton administration and paint her as a liberal. ``The biggest issue is that Janet Reno, far more so than the other Democrats in the race, typifies the fundamental differences between what it means to be a Republican and what it means to be a Democrat,'' said Tom Slade, the former chairman of Florida's Republican Party. Of a Peterson-Bush race, Slade said, ``The issue contrasts would not be quite as keen.

``I say a little prayer for Janet Reno every night.'' Reno's best appeal, one old Republican friend said last week, is her ability to charm an audience with a warm touch and a soft voice. She also can be funny, appearing once last year on a network TV program that frequently satirized her. ``In the last few days I've been alternately described as the 800-pound gorilla, a sad, slightly mad old lady that should rock in her chair, the sponsor of a teeny-bopper dance club on a program called Saturday Night Live,'' she told the Gainesville crowd. ``What you see, ladies and gentlemen, is what you get.''
Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.

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