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
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
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
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