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Jewish World Review Feb. 7, 2002 / 25 Shevat, 5762

Matt Towery

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The epicenter of quiet but powerful shifts in the American political landscape -- SUNDAY'S upset victory by the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl should remind us once again that, whether the sport is football or politics, anything can happen. The intrigue now developing in Florida's governor's race may well be instructive to the entire nation as to how strategy and unforeseen circumstances can combine to create unexpected results.

Based on fund-raising and polling success, Gov. Bush appears to be the prohibitive favorite to win re-election. But as the Democrats search for a nominee to take on Bush, some of their behind-the-scenes moves may be indicative of broader-based trends for the 2002 elections.

Here's the inside story:

Conventional wisdom has been that former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno (D), with her strong national ties and big name, would be the walkaway winner of any Democratic gubernatorial primary. In fact, when Reno began her folksy "everyman" approach to the race, she seemed to suggest that anyone who wanted to see her could venture down to her somewhat remote South Florida home, where she would wage a more dignified "front porch" style campaign.

But that was before the tragic day of Sept. 11.

Since then, Reno has been forced to hit the campaign trail. And another shock to her chances has been the rise of a virtual unknown -- prominent Tampa attorney Bill McBride -- as a legitimate challenger.

The rest of America may be amazed to learn what Floridians have already started to notice. The soft-spoken McBride, who is a decorated war veteran, has managed to gain early support from unions and other organizations that many thought were a lock cinch for Reno. And this little-known former managing partner of the most prestigious Florida-based national law firm has also out-raised Reno in political donations.

But what even some Florida observers might not be focusing on is whether this apparent shift of support toward a seemingly more moderate candidate is actually part of an overall national approach by the Democratic party.

For example, in the Florida contest, Bill McBride is strongly supported in his fund-raising efforts by a prominent Florida political mover and shaker, Richard Swann. What makes Swann's support so interesting is that he is the father-in-law of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe, who is one of the most astute political minds in the country, is one of former President Bill Clinton's closest associates.

Is it a coincidence that Clinton is spending time in Florida raising funds for the Democratic Party? Is there any implied hint of support for McBride over Clinton's former attorney general by the national Democratic establishment?

Certainly no one, whether it is Clinton, McAuliffe or McBride, will dare suggest such to be the case. McBride, in an interview for this column, made it clear that he knew of no implied favoritism or support for his campaign from McAuliffe or any other national Democratic official. Certainly Clinton will bend over backward to dispel any suggestion that he would oppose Reno. He might even go in the opposite direction.

But sources inside several longtime Democrat "support groups" hint that an early decision was made by many at the highest level of the party to embrace candidates who can match up better against their Republican counterparts. These sources believe that President Bush's phenomenal polling numbers will trickle down, not just to his brother, but also to other Republicans throughout the country.

So the McBride model -- a moderate businessperson, preferably with some past ties to the military or other heroic service -- might be the start of an electioneering trend for various state Democratic parties.

As for Reno, there are still many who believe her name identification, her appeal to female and minority voters, and her own brand of prior "heroic" service to the nation will ultimately lead to her winning the right to take on Bush. This assumes that health concerns related to her recent fainting spell while speaking at the University of Rochester, and her ongoing bout with Parkinson's disease, don't become a major impediment.

But McBride, whose rather quiet and measured style stirs memories of other dark horse candidates who went on to win the governorship in the Sunshine State, seems to be a one-man case study to be closely watched by national political experts and the media.

There's one other pattern starting to emerge in Florida that might also have national implications: Many younger members of traditional Democratic strongholds, such as the powerful trial lawyers, are quietly refusing to support a Democrat in this year's race. As one influential attorney put it, "Why are we killing ourselves fighting a losing battle? I'm supporting Jeb."

Once again, Florida may be the epicenter of quiet but powerful shifts in the American political landscape.

Comment on JWR columnist Matt Towery's column by clicking here.


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12/27/01 Rudy, the 'perfect excuse'?
12/19/01 Haig the madman?
12/12/01 That senator with the funny name

© 2001, Creators Syndicate