Democratic gubernatorial primary serves as prelude to 2004 presidential battle

Stay tuned for Florida election

Posted: Wednesday, August 07, 2002

In the upcoming weeks, political observers finally will start to focus on Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary. The delay probably can be written off to the fact that most Americans assume former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is a lock to win her party's nomination.

That would earn her the right to take on presidential brother and current Florida governor, Republican Jeb Bush. And if the economy keeps flirting with a second recession on the heels of the one supposedly just ended, even mighty Jeb could be vulnerable come November. But there's a hidden story in the Reno race -- she might not get past the primary.

Of course, every poll so far has shown the former Clinton Cabinet member with a significant lead over her opponent, attorney Bill McBride. But the "inside" Democratic establishment -- from Washington, D.C., all the way down to the never-to-be-forgotten Palm Beach County, Fla. -- appears to be working overtime to stage a last-minute McBride upset.

Evidence of this is abundantly clear. For example, as of the required June 30 election disclosure, Reno trailed McBride significantly in total funds raised. McBride, a former war hero, appeared to have a significant cash reserve available for critical TV commercials. And Reno's coffers weren't nearly so full.

The Reno campaign correctly notes that she has little need for TV spots, given her high national profile. But those close to McBride confirm that soon he will begin spending TV dollars in the expensive major metropolitan areas that are so critical to winning in Florida.

A relatively modest early campaign effort by McBride in Florida's northwestern panhandle has reportedly moved internal McBride polling numbers from a 30-point deficit to about a 20-point one.

Still, a 20-point lead in a political poll of her opponent should provide comfort to a candidate of Reno's stature. And most political experts still handicap the race as hers to lose. So why are so many Democratic movers and shakers gunning for an upset?

The answer is Jeb Bush. He is an established governor with a powerful campaign war

chest and a popular brother who happens to occupy the White House. Many national and Florida Democrats want badly to knock Bush off in order to avenge what they consider to have been an unfair outcome from the 2000 post-election battle over the Sunshine State's electoral votes.

And they wince at Bush's current funny and effective TV ad that cleverly shows the dancing feet of a man and a woman -- described in the voiceover as Reno and McBride -- dancing around the issues.

Democratic powerbrokers quietly confess their belief that McBride, with his more moderate views and appealing military record, is the only candidate with a chance of defeating Bush in November. And that belief has at least indirect connections to the highest levels of the Democratic Party.

McBride's fund-raising chairman happens to be the father-in-law of National Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe. He is known to be the handpicked choice of Reno's onetime boss, former President Bill Clinton, to head the DNC. While Clinton has carefully avoided the Florida race and McAuliffe has said that he's not involved in it either, many key supporters of the former president are heavily involved in assisting McBride.

In fact, it seems more than coincidence that key Democratic support groups, such as the powerful state teachers union and a major voters league made up of Palm Beach County Democrats, have thrown their support to McBride. Normally a candidate like Reno, who is perceived as the more liberal of the two candidates, would seem a natural fit for a big union and a coalition of longtime South Florida Democrats.

In fighting a quiet but active Democratic power establishment in her own home state, Reno doubtless takes issue with the notion that her opponent would be a more attractive candidate to oppose Bush. McBride recently ended a stint as managing partner of a Florida-based law firm with offices across the country, and recent published reports have suggested that significant layoffs at the firm might be related to his management.

The interest in this race will rise over the next month, as McBride goes from being relatively unknown to Florida's general public to gaining at least some name identification. And Reno, who may be trailing in funds and powerful friends, will likely stage a late campaign grass-roots effort that could steer her clear of an embarrassing defeat.

Undoubtedly the race has all the intrigue and hidden undercurrents that Florida and America have come to know and expect in a major Florida election. Soon the nation will take note of this interesting prelude to the 2004 presidential battle.

In the meantime, Jeb Bush will have the luxury of sitting back and watching both Janet Reno and Bill McBride dance as fast as they can.

Matt Towery writes a syndicated column based out of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at

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