Jeb Bush on Offensive in Florida Race; McBride Returns Governor's salvos.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Miller, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DADE CITY, Fla. - Gov. Jeb Bush assails his opponent as soon as he walks out in front of an adoring audience on Lowell Stansberry's farm, and never lets up.

"Bill McBride's approach is that everything is a priority in government," Mr. Bush says, jabbing at his Democratic foe, whom he continues to accuse of being weak on specifics.

Later, he tells them that "everything's a priority with Bill McBride."

His putdowns are succinct and decidedly Republican. Big government is bad, and Mr. McBride is a big-government man is the crux of his argument.

Meanwhile, Mr. McBride, a Tampa lawyer, spent a recent Sunday morning in the cozy pews of several black churches in Tampa's rundown Ybor City, reciting Bible verses and trying to assure the small crowds that he was the best man in the race.

The day before that, at a stop in Pinellas County, Mr. McBride, 57, told a crowd that he had learned that "a half-truth is a full lie," referring to the governor's boast that education spending in his administration had hit nearly $3 billion.

It has come down to this: The issues are local, with education at No. 1. Bashing the opponent is a close second.

But the implications are national. A Jeb Bush loss on Nov. 5 would be a symbolic rebuke of President Bush and also would hurt his brother's re-election bid in 2004.

"What this has turned into is a national race with local issues," said Wayne Garcia, a Tampa Bay-based political consultant with Repper, Garcia and Associates. "The overlay of this for the Democrats is to get Jeb out so that George W. can't win the state in 2004. This is so important to Democrats."

So the candidates dwell on education, which was ranked as the most important issue to voters in a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll last spring.

The newspapers' poll also found that 51 percent of respondents disapproved of the job the governor was doing with education.

With the education issue driving the debate, Mr. McBride and the governor are either deadlocked or Mr. Bush leads by between three and five points, depending on the pollster.

So Mr. Bush, 49, plays like there is no tomorrow, hitting communities where he is by now well known: in Haitian sections of Miami, at a Hispanic festival in Fort Lauderdale, and here, preaching to the converted at a farm on a stormy afternoon. …