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Jeb Bush's Lead Shrinks as Race Is a Dead Heat

President to travel to Florida to help brother's reelection bid against a virtual unknown.

October 17, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Brother of one president, son of another, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is now in the political race of his life against a Democrat who is still a little-known quantity to many Floridians.

A poll conducted last week for MSNBC found Bush and his challenger, Bill McBride, in a statistical dead heat. Bush had a lead of 3 percentage points over McBride, according to the Zogby International poll of 500 likely voters, but the spread may be meaningless because the poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4.5 points.

More worrisome for Bush, pollster John Zogby said in a television interview, was that when asked if their governor deserved a second term, only 45% of the Florida voters surveyed said yes, while 48% said they preferred "someone new."

Hanging onto Florida, which clinched the controversial 2000 election for Republicans with the nation's fourth-biggest trove of electoral votes, is a crucial assignment for GOP strategists. President Bush is scheduled today to make his 11th visit to the state since taking office. He will speak at a school in New Smyrna Beach about education, a hot-button issue in Florida, and attend a private fund-raiser for his younger brother's reelection campaign.

There will be other opinion polls before election day, Nov. 5, but whatever their results, the gubernatorial contest is shaping up to be close. "In Florida, everybody knows that one vote does make a difference now," Jeb Bush told NBC's "Today" on Tuesday. "We've been sensitized to that."

In Zogby's previous Florida survey, conducted Sept. 21, Bush held a 10-point advantage. So why has his margin melted away to be statistically insignificant?

"My interpretation of the election is that more or less it's a referendum on Jeb Bush," said George Gonzalez, assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami. "And the reason the race is so tight is that a lot of people have negative feelings about Jeb."

Turmoil in the state's child welfare agency, local fallout from the economic slump, dissatisfaction over public schools, rancor over the disputed 2000 election and lingering hostility among minorities because of the abolition of affirmative action programs--all have helped sap Bush's popularity.

This month, the 49-year-old governor was also caught on tape making disparaging remarks about lesbians at what he thought was a private meeting in the conservative Panhandle, and vowing to use "devious" countermeasures if voters approve a statewide ceiling on class size that he opposes.

Although its potential political impact is unknown, Bush's daughter Noelle, 25, has also been in the news for her problems with drugs, and should appear at a court hearing today to determine whether she can stay in a treatment program or be returned to the regular criminal justice system.

In contrast, McBride, the folksy lawyer and Vietnam War veteran who upset ex-Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, appears not to provoke negative feelings among many voters, if people have a clear impression of him.

"It's strange, but he seems to have taken a page from Ronald Reagan," said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "He has selected a few issues, and talks only about them."

The keystone of McBride's campaign is improving the state's public schools, which he contends have declined disgracefully under Bush, who paints himself as the "education governor." During a radio debate between the candidates Tuesday night, the GOP incumbent countered that African American elementary school pupils have made "massive gains" in reading in his four years in office.

The candidates are set to meet for one final televised debate in Orlando on Tuesday.

"I think the edge at this point goes to Bush, but McBride still has a shot," said Jewett of the University of Central Florida.

"Jeb's negatives are strong as it is," said Gonzalez of the University of Miami. "There is no reason for McBride to attack him. He's played it well up to this point. He will try to build up his positives, looking statesmanlike, like a credible candidate, like someone people can trust."

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