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Jeb Bush Goes on the Attack in Debate

Florida governor, holding a slim lead in reelection bid, says his challenger would raise taxes. McBride sees an attempt to alarm voters.

October 23, 2002|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. -- With the latest poll showing Gov. Jeb Bush hanging on to a slim but steady lead, the scion of Republican royalty came out swinging in a televised debate Tuesday night, accusing his Democratic challenger of stealth plans to raise taxes and fealty to special interests.

Bill McBride, Bush said, doesn't differ on a single issue with his chief backer, the state's teachers' union, and hasn't even condemned a politically influential Miami preacher who characterized the Bush family, which includes President Bush, the governor's brother, as neo-Nazis on his radio program.

McBride, Bush said, "can't be all things to all people."

The Democrat, a former Tampa law firm manager who won the Bronze Star as a Marine in the Vietnam War, accused Bush of trying to frighten voters by claiming he wants to increase taxes and of wrongly implying he endorses the smear on the Bush family.

"Governor, you really need to raise your game," McBride complained.

The hourlong televised debate, held in a ballroom at the University of Central Florida and moderated by NBC-TV's Tim Russert, was a stark contrast in personalities: the intense 49-year-old incumbent from the GOP who is seeking reelection and seemed at ease and fluent with a wide spectrum of issues, and the more rambling, vague and folksy McBride, 57.

A poll published earlier in the day indicated that Bush may have succeeded in holding off the challenge from the Democratic upstart, who waged a brilliant campaign to upset former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in their party's Sept. 10 primary.

Bush Has 5-Point Lead

Bush was favored among 49% and McBride by 44% of likely voters surveyed Thursday through Sunday by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research for a number of Florida media outlets. McBride's 5 percentage-point deficit was virtually unchanged since a similar survey a month ago, hinting that the surge that lifted him from political unknown to serious gubernatorial contender may have stalled.

"Maybe McBride has peaked too soon, or is facing a money crunch," said Jeffery Mondak, professor of political science at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "The governor has quite a bit more money available. As the incumbent, the governor can make news without spending much money. Being the brother of the president also helps."

Florida, however, has a notoriously fickle electorate that often reserves nasty last-minute surprises for politicians, incumbents included. In 1994, when Bush made his first run at the governorship, he led in the polls until a week before election day, when the Democratic incumbent, Lawton Chiles, likened himself in a televised debate to a wily old raccoon.

Chiles' reference evidently flummoxed the transplant from Texas, but struck a deep chord among many conservative voters of Central and North Florida. Bush narrowly lost that election. He tried again in 1998, and won by 418,000 votes.

Put on the defensive, especially concerning his record on education, Bush has been jetting up and down Florida's sandy peninsula, appearing at barbecues, churches and condominium association meetings. He has announced a plan to ease the state's serious school overcrowding by building 12,000 new classrooms, and proposed toughening criminal penalties against con artists who bilk senior citizens out of $10,000 or more. In Miami, his campaign doled out free hot dogs to Cuban Americans, a key GOP voter bloc.

"The governor now decides he cares about the public schools," said McBride, whose mantra is improving the schools, remarked wryly during a stop on the campaign trail. "Who knows, within a week or two, he may end up endorsing me."

Much of Tuesday night's debate, the last of three face-to-face encounters between the candidates, centered on the cost of a proposed cap on classroom size that voters in Florida will be asked to approve on election day.

McBride said he supports a 50-cent-a-pack tax increase on cigarettes to pay for school expansion, "and that's the only tax I've supported." He said he'd tap the state's general revenue fund to raise additional funds.

Bush, the Democrat complained, "is now running an ad, which is just frankly absurd, suggesting all sorts of wild numbers, trying to scare the people of Florida." McBride denied he'd raise sales or property taxes or institute a state income tax.

But when pressed by Russert, McBride couldn't say how much the constitutional amendment that he backs would cost taxpayers if adopted. It would be "somewhere" between various estimates, which range from $8 billion to $27 billion, he said, eliciting laughter from spectators inside the university ballroom.

McBride Hit on Taxes

"Again, you can't be advocating something as governor, and not have responsibility ... to explain how you're going to pay for it," Bush said disapprovingly. "Mr. McBride would propose more taxes and big government. That's not what Floridians want."

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