- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

He is aiming to raise $40 million in his bid to become the first Republican governor to win a second term in Florida, but Jeb Bush's money won't thwart a bludgeoning attack that will come from state and national Democrats.
"Our strategy will be to make sure the focus sticks on Jeb and on the damage that he has done to the state," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. A teetering state economy and a floundering public-education system are just a couple of the targets, Mr. Poe said.
Joining him in the maligning of Mr. Bush's four years in office are the state's labor unions a strong force for the Democratic Party and several key minority groups, including the burgeoning Puerto Rican community that has blossomed in central part of the state.
"The contest is now shaping up," said Tony Welsh, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "It is starting right now, and what we will be doing is asking Florida to fire Jeb Bush."
The Republican response, though, is ready.
"We assume [attacking the governor] is what they will do, since they don't have a great horse," said state party strategist Randy Enwright, referring to a field of Democratic hopefuls, led by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
Even Republicans concede that the incumbent and little brother of President Bush has some weak spots.
"He can come across as arrogant, and he can also antagonize people," said a Republican source. "But as long as the campaign can get voters to look at what he has done, he will be all right."
In the past week, the Florida governor has been to Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas on an ambitious fund-raising foray. He is using the appearances to boast of his accomplishments over the past four years, projects with catchy names like the "A+ Plan" and "One Florida."
But to Democrats, the plans are targets. One Florida, when it was proposed in 1999, drew Jesse Jackson and nearly 30,000 protesters gathered by the AFL-CIO, who decried the plan to remove race as a factor for college admission and in state contracting.
"They will also seize on the fragility of the Florida economy," said Wayne Garcia, a political consultant in Tampa. "We are dependent on tourism, so we took a hit [from the September 11 attacks], and he has to shore up the economy without raising taxes. People are still hammering him on where we rank nationally on education."
As the governor parades his accomplishments, Miss Reno, his likeliest opponent on Nov. 5, plugs away at retirement community forums and the annual conventions for the state chapters of the National Organization for Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Miss Reno was clearly the star attraction at a recent Democratic candidate forum, as she and three other contenders prepare for a costly and possibly divisive primary on Sept. 10.
The candidates are somewhat indistinguishable ideologically at this point, as they begin 10 months of fund raising and stumping. Earlier this month, state Rep. Lois Frankel, state Sen. Daryl Jones and Tampa attorney Bill McBride joined Miss Reno at a forum sponsored by the Service Employees International Union.
Besides supporting more unionization in this right-to-work state, the candidates also proposed making health care more accessible, letting working immigrants remain in the United States and opposing most proposals to privatize government services.
Republicans wonder how someone can run against Miss Reno without invoking Elian Gonzalez, the fatal Branch Davidian siege at Waco and Chinese fund-raising.
"I think it would be naive to think that there will not be some kind of negativity in the Democratic primary," added Miss Frankel, an outspoken legislator who gained national prominence during Florida's 2000 presidential-recount battle. "What happens in primaries is that even if there is a pledge to be positive, we can't control the ventures of outside groups."
The fear of Democrats and prayer of Republicans is that the primary goes negative.
"We won't even have to drag out the past at all if the primary gets negative enough," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "My sense is that Janet Reno is clearly the front-runner and doesn't need to mix it up with her challengers. But if they are sincerely interested in the nomination, they will do what it takes."
Miss Reno will campaign with the same fourth-generation Florida folksiness that got her elected as state's attorney in Dade County, her campaign manager Mo Elleithee said.
Her past including the very events that could diminish her at the ballot box is emblematic of her individuality.
"Janet Reno's greatest strength has been her independence and willingness to make tough choices and stand by them," Mr. Elleithee said. "Floridians respect that. And there is much more to Janet Reno than her turn as attorney general, and we will reintroduce her to voters."

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