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Once solidly in GOP ranks, Fla. a battleground for Bush

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - With George W. Bush flying in for hastily scheduled campaign stops tomorrow in Florida, this state's popular governor is scrambling his own plans so he can be there with him.

Not long ago, Florida's governor, who is also the Republican candidate's brother, could look forward to an orderly, even leisurely, presidential campaign effort in this state. With Florida regarded as reliably Republican in presidential elections, Gov. Jeb Bush had hoped to spend his time, perhaps much of it, stumping elsewhere around the country for his older brother.

Now, all that has changed. The race in Florida is tighter than Jeb Bush and almost everyone else had anticipated.

The governor says he's surprised that the contest in Florida is as competitive as it is.

"It's nip and tuck," Jeb Bush says. "I'd rather be up 10 [points] than whatever it is. It's pretty close right now."

Florida, with its 25 electoral votes - a virtual must-win for Bush - is very much up for grabs. And brother Jeb must devote his political energies to making sure the family doesn't suffer an embarrassing defeat in the Sunshine State.

Even if the Bush-Cheney ticket carries Florida - as even some Democrats still expect - the surprisingly close contest here could hurt their chances of winning the election.

That's because the Bush campaign, instead of challenging Gore in Democratic states such as California and New York or concentrating more on Midwest swing states, is urgently diverting its most precious resources - millions of dollars and the candidate's personal time - to defending its Florida turf.

No state illustrates the new dynamics of the presidential race better than Florida, which has unexpectedly become the biggest electoral battleground in the country.

A mix of factors, ranging from Al Gore's selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate to stumbles by Bush, has made the contest dead-even nationally and put this state in play.

Bush had once led by as many as 18 percentage points here, but one statewide poll taken after the Democratic convention showed Gore ahead.

Bush's slippage in the polls, and his unexpectedly erratic performance on the stump, are drawing criticism from increasingly nervous Republicans here, as elsewhere. Jeb Bush says he's been getting e-mails from Republican hard-liners, who blame what they see as the news media's slanted coverage for the shift in the presidential contest.

But a top Bush campaign official in central Florida, where close elections in this state are often decided, says Bush has lacked fire during recent campaign appearances, including a visit to Miami.

"He got a little too presidential too soon," says Mel Martinez, chairman of the Orange County Commission.

Martinez, one of the state's leading Cuban-American politicians, still expects Bush to carry Florida. But he uses the word "shocked" to describe his reaction to the tightness of the race here.

"The fact is that we sat on our hands too long," says Martinez, blaming it on overconfidence bred by the party's "feel-good convention" in Philadelphia.

Many of the same developments that have helped turned the contest into a dead heat nationally, including Gore's successful effort to invigorate his candidacy in recent weeks, are influencing the campaign here.

Seniors for Gore

As the nation's fourth-most-populous state, Florida mirrors the rest of the country in many ways. But it also has the highest proportion of residents older than 65, who are expected to cast two of every five votes statewide in November.

The over-65 age group is the only one in which Gore holds a clear lead over Bush, according to the latest national polls. The issues of Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs appear to be resonating with older swing voters in Florida, and perhaps elsewhere, to the Democrat's advantage.

Bill Justice, 73, of Pinellas Park, Fla., voted for Bush's father when he ran for president. This year, Gore will get his vote.

"I'm not in favor of Bush's idea of privatizing Social Security," says Justice, who drove a delivery truck until his retirement this year. "I feel it's going to cut out our [annual inflation adjustments in benefits]."

He knows that Bush has said his plan would not affect current Social Security recipients. But, Justice insists, "it's going to cut some of our benefits out. No matter what they say."

Justice lives with his wife, Evelyn, in the Golden Gate mobile home community for seniors outside St. Petersburg, where George W. Bush is to campaign tomorrow.

Taking a break after her morning walk with her husband inside an air-conditioned shopping mall, Mrs. Justice, who also voted for President Bush, said she seriously considered voting for his son, too. Now, she's leaning toward Gore.

She says she moved further in Gore's direction after Bush made a vulgar remark about a newspaper reporter at a recent campaign event - a remark that clashed with his pledge to restore respect to the presidency.

"I didn't think that was dignified," says Mrs. Justice, 65, who calls herself a devout Baptist.

Lieberman impresses

At the same time, the retired bank teller says she is increasingly impressed by Lieberman's commitment to his religious faith.

"A lot of people are going to vote against Gore because of his Jewish running mate," she says. "But I think it's great that [Lieberman] stands by his convictions. A lot of politicians are presented as religious. But can you practice what you preach? He does."

Putting a Jewish candidate on a national ticket for the first time has energized the state's Jewish voters, who are heavily concentrated in the Miami area. But it may have only minimal impact on Election Day.

Jews, who represent just 6 percent of the Florida electorate, already vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers. And they are a declining political force, as older Jewish retirees continue to die off and aren't re- placed in large numbers, one of several shifting demographics in this fast-changing state.

Another change is the influx of Puerto Ricans, a traditionally Democratic voting group. They represent about one-fifth of the Hispanic population, diluting the heavily Republican hegemony of Cuban-Americans.

During a recent campaign swing here, Gore pledged to "fight hard" in Florida, "right up to the night of the election." His campaign has said that either the vice president or his running mate will make weekly forays into Florida, to keep the pressure on. On Friday, Lieberman arrived late in the afternoon for his second south Florida stop since last month's convention. After a quick campaign rally, he and his wife, Hadassah, were to remain in Miami until today to observe the Jewish Sabbath.

George W. Bush, who had hoped to be spending his days elsewhere over the next two months, will visit Florida three or four more times in September, according to Al Cardenas, the state Republican chairman.

By this point in the campaign, Republicans had expected to have Florida safely in their column. In July, they began airing TV ads around the state, hoping to drive Bush's poll numbers high enough to discourage Gore from competing here. The idea was to make Florida one of the megastate anchors of a Texas-Florida axis, spanning a solidly Republican South, to give the Texas governor a potent electoral vote base.

They had history on their side. Republicans have carried Florida in every presidential election since 1976, except for Bob Dole's anemic effort here four years ago that fell narrowly short. And that was before the 1998 election of Jeb Bush, a gifted politician once regarded as the most likely offspring of the former president to make it to the White House.

"George Bush's younger brother is the 800-pound political gorilla in Florida," Rick Dantzler, the unsuccessful 1998 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, says with admiration.

Not only is Jeb Bush's popularity high in all parts of the state, Dantzler says, but his political organization is as effective as any in Florida's history in raising money and turning out votes.

"Al Gore has his work cut out for him," the Democrat adds. "My bet would still be on Bush winning the state." Unless and until the polls change, though, the state will remain a battle zone.

Jeb Bush, in an interview, credits Gore with running "a focused campaign." But the race, he predicts, is about to swing back toward his brother.

Republicans are outspending the Gore forces in Florida, with new TV ads that attack the vice president's credibility and promotes Bush's plan to reform Medicare.

"George is coming, and we're advertising, and we're counterattacking," says the Florida governor, who has done little overt campaigning until now. "The best way I can help my brother is to be as good a governor as I can be. If I was doing poorly as governor, and if I abdicated my responsibilities, I'd hear about it, and it would hurt George."

The presidential contest might be surprisingly close in Florida at the moment. "In two weeks," Jeb Bush says with a tight, but seemingly confident, smile, "it'll be different."

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