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Bush Rattled as Brother Battles for Florida
Published on Friday, October 25, 2002 by the Times/UK
Bush Rattled as Brother Battles for Florida
by Tim Reid in Orlando, Florida
 

THE television audience could not see it, but every so often, as his Democratic opponent attacked him for being untrustworthy, Jeb Bush’s right foot twitched.

As President Bush’s younger brother fought his corner during a bruising debate broadcast live across Florida on Tuesday night, he had every reason to be twitchy. His campaign to be re-elected Governor of the Sunshine State is in serious trouble. It is a predicament that has plunged White House strategists into a state of barely concealed panic.

A second gubernatorial term for Jeb Bush has been a Republican priority because the President sees it as vital if he is to win the fourth largest state in 2004 by more than the 537 hotly disputed votes that handed him Florida and the White House in 2000.

The race for the governorship, which is being fought on local issues of education and tax, has just been thrust on to the national political stage because pollsters put Mr Bush in a statistical tie with his challenger, Bill McBride, for the vote on November 5. Only one month ago Mr Bush enjoyed a 12-point lead.

Mr McBride, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, former college football star and Tampa lawyer, is a political novice who has risen so quickly from obscurity that the Bush camp has struggled to deal with his audacious bid for the Governor’s mansion. He surprised many by beating Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s former Attorney-General, in the Democratic primary.

Democrats smell Bush blood. They see this race as a trial run for President Bush in 2004, and a replay of 2000, where accusations of electoral theft still reverberate across Florida’s swamps and cities.

“It truly is a huge opportunity for Democrats to strike a major blow to the Bush Administration,” Matt Towery, a political analyst, said. “For Democrats, Florida has become priority number one.”

That may explain why the President has visited Florida 11 times since he was elected, including an appearance last week which raised $1 million (£650,000) for his brother’s campaign. The White House has showered Florida with projects and money, from healthcare to the environment, drawing accusations from Democrats that the President has raided the federal budget to buy his brother a second term.

Mr McBride, 57, the son of a television repairman, may be a political unknown and distinctly vague on how he proposes to pay for his key electoral pledge of reducing school class sizes, but he has learnt one of the golden rules for those aspiring to political success: copy Ronald Reagan’s ploy of focusing on just one or two issues.

He has chosen only one to campaign on: education. The state of Florida lags 49th out of 50 in some school league tables. Mr McBride delivers his message in a down-home, bashful manner dripping with Southern charm and courtesy. Slickly crafted words do not zip from his mouth as they do from Mr Bush’s; they seem to drool from his lips like warm molasses, a style that many Floridians find appealing.

The Bush camp, which has a $30 million war chest to lavish on a huge television campaign, has begun to rough up the former Marine and Bronze Star hero. In one advertisement it claims that Mr McBride might raise income tax to pay for his education program, even though he cannot because it is prohibited by Florida statute.

Turmoil in the state’s child welfare agency, the economic downturn, rancor over the 2000 election and dissatisfaction over schools have sapped the Governor’s popularity.

Further, Mr Bush’s daughter Noelle, 25, has just been jailed for violating a drug treatment program when crack cocaine was found in her shoe at a counseling session.

Mr McBride has refused to capitalize on such a personal issue, but on Tuesday night he told Mr Bush that he should be ashamed of his advertising campaign. “Governor, you have got to raise your game,” Mr McBride drawled.

Mr Bush, 49, a consummate political performer, debated confidently, but yesterday the Florida papers hailed a bravura McBride performance.

“It’s going to be close, and anyone who doesn’t think so is wrong,” Susan McManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, said.

Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd

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