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DECISION 2000

As Florida Goes, So Goes the Tense Nation

Gov. Jeb Bush worked to deliver state to sibling. But his success, or failure, remained a mystery.

November 08, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — In the end, the presidency was Floridians' decision to make--and early today the decision was still up in the air.

Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush--indeed, the entire nation--were forced to wait until the final ballots were counted in the early-morning hours to see who would win the Sunshine State's 25 electoral votes. As dawn approached, Bush led by slightly more than 1,200 votes in the state, but "several thousand" absentee ballots remained outstanding. Even without those ballots, the margin was small enough to trigger a recount under state law.

Citing that provision, Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said early today that "our campaign continues" until the recount is complete. "This race has come down to the state of Florida."

That Florida was a key battleground state in what has turned out to be the closest presidential election in 40 years was, in one sense, no surprise. Both campaigns had targeted the state this year, devoting countless hours to campaigning and investing more than $20 million in television ads.

In Miami alone, the Republicans ran 4,224 television commercials and the Democrats 1,467, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buys for The Times. In Tampa, Democrats aired 2,937 commercials and Republicans 3,690.

But, seen through a longer lens, the epic struggle between Gore and Bush for the state underscored its passage into a new era.

From 1968 through 1992, Florida was a cornerstone of the Republican electoral majority: Democratic presidential nominees averaged less than 40% of the vote here over that quarter-century.

In 1996, President Clinton broke through to win the state. But many Republicans still considered his victory an anomaly, fueled by a backlash among Cuban Americans about Republican immigration policy and concern among seniors about congressional GOP efforts to cut Medicare spending.

Bush's trouble in putting away the state--even though his brother Jeb sits in the governor's chair--suggests that the inflow of new voters has fundamentally changed Florida's partisan balance. Like Clinton in 1996, Gore remained competitive among the young suburban families congregating along the thriving I-4 corridor in central Florida; the vice president appeared to carry Orange County (which includes Orlando at the eastern end of the corridor), and ran nearly even in Hillsborough (which includes Tampa, at the western end of the corridor.)

Gore also benefited from the continued growth of the non-Cuban Latino population in the state, especially in areas like Orange County; those voters gave him a solid margin, according to the exit poll.

But Bush countered that showing by amassing big margins in the Republican-leaning portions of the state. According to the exit poll, he crushed Gore among white men in Florida by 23 percentage points--more than his margin among that group nationally. And despite a Democratic ad barrage accusing Bush of threatening Social Security, the Texas governor narrowly carried seniors, the exit poll found.

In Florida, Bush showed strongly in the rural northwest Panhandle. In Escambia County, for instance, he surged to a 63% to 35% victory. In northeast Florida, Bush ran up a 17-percentage-point victory in military-heavy Jacksonville. Bush also held his own along Interstate 4, posting strong victories in many of the counties between the coasts.

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So important was Florida to each candidate's success that both were in and out of the state several times in the last few days. Gore ended his campaign there early Tuesday, joining a bevy of Hollywood entertainers on a Miami Beach stage.

Bush also concentrated on Florida. On Sunday, he whirled through campaign stops in Tampa and West Palm Beach before flying to Miami to address several thousand supporters at Florida International University.

The turnout in greater Miami fell just short of the projection of 80%, according to election officials.

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