Jeb vs. Janet in Florida

Article excerpt

Next year's Florida gubernatorial election--which could pit presidential brother and current GOP Governor Jeb Bush against former Attorney General Janet Reno--is developing into the marquee melee of the midterm elections. The Democrats are already framing the contest as a referendum on the policies of George W. Bush and as a possible harbinger of 2004.

The state that gave President Bush his Electoral College margin of victory is looming so large that the state Democratic Party, for the first time, is staging fundraisers outside Florida. The first such event was held June 11 in New York City: a $1,000-per-person luncheon with Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham as the featured speaker. "People around the country see the importance of a Democratic governor in Florida in 2002," said state party chairman Bob Poe. "If we can win here, we can win in 2004." The Democrats, who have never spent more than $10 million on a state race, will probably spend $20 million this time. "George W. Bush's Administration has a pro-special interest agenda, and he will tap those special-interest wallets to defend his brother," said Jenny Backus, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. "But we'll be competitive."

State GOP chairman Al Cardenas says his party will not be outspent. As for Reno's possible candidacy, he says, "She would be a strong candidate at the beginning but weak at the end. She can win a primary easily enough because she's known and because she's from south Florida, where 45 percent of primary votes are. But in time she'll be a very polarizing figure." Cardenas insists Reno would not be able to spend time attacking Jeb's policies because she'd be busy defending her own performance in Washington. "Elian, Waco, campaign fundraising, the FBI, espionage, ad infinitum," Cardenas said. "You can't run a campaign against a standing governor that way." Cardenas says Democratic leaders may privately prefer another, less controversial candidate, but those leaders have denied that.

Democrats have been itching for revenge against the Bushes since the presidential election was decided in December. But when Graham, the most popular politician in the state, and Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth both confirmed that they wouldn't run for governor, the party was left without a well-known candidate to challenge Jeb. The announcement by Reno in mid-May that she might be interested changed all that.

Jeb Bush announced his candidacy June 8, and the next day Vice President Cheney hosted a fundraiser in Orlando that reportedly raised $2.5 million for the campaign. Reno says she's still deciding whether she'll run. Several other Democrats are interested in the nomination, including former Congressman and US Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson from the Florida Panhandle, Congressman Jim Davis of Tampa and State Representative Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County. Poe insists the nomination is wide open, but many observers feel that if Reno chooses to run, the nomination is hers. "Janet is the 800-pound gorilla," says Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a black leader and a Democrat. "If she decides to run, the other candidates should just fold their tents."

Not only is Reno as well-known as Jeb but more than half the state's registered voters are women. A recent Miami Herald poll had Bush beating Reno 49 to 43 with a 4-point margin of error. Democrats say that for a sitting governor to garner less than 50 percent at this stage means Jeb is very vulnerable. Bush supporters disagree, but they're in accord that the campaign will be expensive and extremely contentious, especially if Reno runs. "The Democrats are going to put down everything they've got to bring down this governor, as payback for the presidential race last year," says Ron Sachs, a Tallahassee-based media consultant who backs Bush's performance as governor and thinks he will be re-elected. "Yes, it's also indisputable that it will be a comment on George W. …