- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

The mass e-mail sent out by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election campaign is telling: Democratic challenger Bill McBride, already a proven giant-slayer, is 10 percentage points behind the Republican incumbent in a new Zogby poll.

It is a slim lead against a political neophyte who overcame a 50-point deficit to defeat Janet Reno in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

"The poll should not serve as a reason or excuse to be complacent," the e-mail, dated Sunday, reads. "Rather it should serve as a call to arms and motivator for us to build on this lead."

"They're right, this is no time to be complacent," said John Zogby, who heads the Zogby International polling group.

"This is a race in which voting machines may be a deciding factor," he said, referring to the malfunctioning equipment and confused poll workers that led to disputed results in the Sept. 10 primary.

Mr. Zogby's poll of likely voters has a 4.5 percentage-point margin of error and was conducted last week.

Mr. McBride's strong comeback was a primary reason state Republicans put nearly $1 million into television ads supporting the governor's re-election, including four ads attacking Mr. McBride, before the primary.

The McBride money machine cranked up in the last days of the primary, taking in more than a quarter-million dollars between Aug. 24 and Sept. 5, according to reports filed with the state.

And he has shown an ability to come from behind. As late as August, the Tampa lawyer trailed Miss Reno by 13 points 46 percent to 33 percent in a poll conducted for Internet news service InsiderAdvantage. He ended up winning the primary by 5,685 votes.

"This is a race that will come down to a few votes," said Matt Towery, chairman of InsiderAdvantage. "Every politician wants to come to Florida now and capitalize on McBride's candidacy. They see this as a replay of 2000. It truly is a huge opportunity for Democrats to strike a major blow to the Bush administration. For many Democrats, even nationally, Florida has become priority number one."

The state, which has 3.9 million registered Democratic voters to 3.5 million Republicans, has weathered fiscal woes that Mr. McBride is expected to use as a major campaign issue. He also has attacked the governor's education platform.

Mr. Bush has promised more money for education, "but McBride has promised even more," said one Republican Party lawyer, who asked not to be named. "So the thinking with voters is: If some money is good, why isn't more better? And that can work for McBride. Jeb has to rethink that platform."

Mr. Bush benefits from a solid reputation in the state's business community, due in part to his affection for tax cuts. Since taking office in 1998, he has slashed property and business taxes.

Mr. Bush has also gained the favor of education reformists by advocating a school-choice plan that allows students in poor public schools to attend private or public institutions.

And his budget included a $40 million boost in funding to preserve the Everglades.

"When you look at this race as it stands, it is fairly balanced right now," said J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a former adviser to Mr. Bush and one-time chief of staff to Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. "I think the expectation is that if you are a Bush in office and are not leading by 20 points, you're in trouble."

But he noted that the governor will have "three times" as much money as Mr. McBride.

"Unless something unusual happens, Jeb will win," Mr. Stipanovich said.

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