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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Once Solidly GOP, Florida No Longer a Sure Thing for Bush

September 24, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

ORLANDO, Fla. — Even in a year of unexpected twists, nothing may have surprised George W. Bush more than the fact that he found himself pitching for votes here Saturday morning.

With his brother Jeb holding the governorship, Florida was supposed to be secure for Bush--the matching Sun Belt pillar to his home state base in Texas. Instead, Bush finds himself in a firefight here, with the latest public and private polls showing Vice President Al Gore even or slightly ahead despite a massive Republican television blitz.

For Bush, the stakes in this competition couldn't be higher: If he can't hold Florida's 25 electoral votes, it will be virtually impossible for him to reach an electoral college majority.

When President Clinton won Florida in 1996--becoming the first Democratic nominee in 20 years to carry the state--many analysts considered it a fluke, explained mostly by a Cuban American backlash against Republican immigration policies. But Gore's strong showing this year suggests that larger demographic, economic and political forces may have lastingly transformed Florida into a swing state that neither party can count on.

"I don't think for a while yet to come that any Republican candidate for president is going to be able to take their race for granted here," says Tom Slade, former GOP chairman in the state.

Overall, Republicans remain cautiously optimistic here. That's partly because they believe the state still tilts slightly in their direction and partly because they believe Jeb Bush will raise and spend whatever it takes to avoid the embarrassment of losing it for his brother. And it remains to be seen whether Gore--who has not matched Bush's ad blitz--will ultimately invest the money to capture a state he doesn't need to win.

But no one considers the result here a sure thing for Bush. And that uncertainty alone--coming as Democrats consolidate their presidential-year holds on New York, California and even Illinois and New Jersey--could signal a major shift in the electoral college balance of power.

"The electoral college mathematics really do change if Florida can't be put in that strongly leaning Republican category," says Jim Kane, chief pollster of the independent Florida Voter Poll. "And I think it is going to go right down to the wire here."

Growth is the principal source of change in Florida; new arrivals reconfigure the state as relentlessly as the ocean reshapes the shore. During the 1980s, Kane notes, the dominant stream of migrants was retirees, many from the Midwest, who strengthened the GOP. But today, the state's prosperity (unemployment is just 3.8%) is attracting a steady flow of younger families who respond to the same mix of centrist policies--fiscally moderate, socially tolerant, pro-public education--as their Northern counterparts.

"The newer voters that are moving into the state are less ideological and certainly less partisan, and there seems to be a slight trend toward the Democrats, especially on social issues," Kane says.

Those trends were on display late last week when Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman stopped in at Cirent Semiconductor, a microchip manufacturing company in Orlando. In the last six years, the firm has more than doubled its work force to 1,800--part of a 40% increase in high-technology jobs over that period along the thriving "I-4 corridor" that follows Interstate 4 southwest from Orlando through Tampa.

Many of the new workers at Cirent are Northern transplants, and even before Lieberman spoke, many were leaning strongly toward Gore. "I've enjoyed the prosperity the last few years," said Cristin Wolfson, who moved here from Massachusetts four years ago. "I agree with most everything Clinton has done."

Sitting next to her, Dave W. Holley, a longer-time resident, seconded her choice. Holley voted for Vice President George Bush in 1988, but he switched to Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and is sticking with Gore now. "I leaned toward W. Bush early on, but when he picked [Dick] Cheney it bothered me because I was hoping for some moderate choice rather than a conservative," Holley said. "Gore may be a little more liberal than Clinton, but he's smart enough to know where the center lies."

As Holley's comments suggest, Clinton's repositioning of his party in the center--a formula Gore has largely followed--has been as important as the demographic change in restoring the Democrats' ability to contest Florida. From 1968 through 1988, when Democrats generally offered more liberal nominees, the party lost Florida five of six times, averaging less than 40% of the vote. Clinton narrowly lost the state in 1992, and he broke through to defeat Bob Dole handily with 48% of the vote last time.

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