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The Nation

Shadow of Sept. 11 Looms Over Closely Contested Primaries

Politics: State elections could be affected as the nation focuses on the anniversary of attacks.

September 08, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Some of the nation's most closely watched political races will take their final shape Tuesday as several states--from Florida to Arizona--hold the last major round of primaries before the November election.

One high-profile contest was prematurely decided last week when Andrew Cuomo, Housing and Urban Development secretary in the Clinton administration and son of former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, ceded the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination to the state comptroller, H. Carl McCall.

Cuomo was trailing badly in the polls, and his decision solidified the Democratic bid to unseat Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.

But several other primaries appear headed for tight finishes, including the closely watched race in Florida for the Democratic nomination to oppose Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

One common uncertainty for all the candidates is whether the intensifying focus on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks will eclipse their last-minute messages and depress primary turnout.

At the least, the anniversary is likely to increase the pressure on get-out-the-vote operations--which could prove critical in several of these potentially photo-finish contests.

Here's a look at some of Tuesday's top races:

* Florida: The Democratic gubernatorial battle has turned into a virtual tossup between Tampa attorney Bill McBride and longtime front-runner Janet Reno, President Clinton's attorney general. Recent polls show Reno clinging to a slight lead, but all the momentum has been in the direction of McBride, who has benefited from a wave of television ads and high-profile endorsements.

Reno remains a hero to much of the Democratic rank and file, particularly minorities; McBride is counting on more-moderate and conservative voters. However, he also has substantial union support that should provide him a turnout advantage potentially decisive in a close race.

African American state Sen. Daryl Jones lags far behind, but he could draw crucial votes from Reno.

If McBride triumphs, he may acquire a giant-killer aura that slingshots him within range of Bush, who has led in the polls all year. If Reno can manage only a narrow victory, she may be too weakened to seriously threaten Bush.

* New Hampshire: The state Republican Party has been tearing itself apart in fierce primary contests for its Senate and gubernatorial nominations. Republican Sen. Bob Smith, who briefly left the GOP in 1999 to become an independent, faces an uphill struggle against Rep. John E. Sununu, the son of former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who also was White House chief of staff during the first Bush administration.

Smith and the younger Sununu are solid conservatives; the race has turned more on personal qualities and lingering resentments over Smith's fleeting exodus from the GOP. Smith has trailed in the polls all year, although some recent surveys show him narrowing the gap. Republican insiders still give Sununu an edge. The winner will face outgoing Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who ran about even with both in a survey released last week.

The GOP gubernatorial primary has been a firefight between businessman Craig Benson and former Sen. Gordon Humphrey, an activist conservative who has launched a withering television assault on his opponent's business record and Republican credentials. The latest polls show at least a slight edge for Benson.

In a far more decorous affair, Democrats appear poised to nominate state Sen. Mark Fernald, who's proposing a state income tax to fund education, for the governorship over Beverly Hollingworth, the party leader in the state Senate.

* North Carolina: Although there hasn't been any public polling in weeks, Democratic insiders say businessman Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff during part of the Clinton administration, remains the favorite in a three-way primary for the Democratic Senate nomination. The other candidates are state Rep. Dan Blue and North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. In the post-Enron environment, Blue and Marshall have lashed Bowles over his work on Wall Street. But neither has raised much money, allowing Bowles to dominate the ad campaign.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a former secretary of Labor and former president of the American Red Cross, faces little more than token opposition for the Republican Senate nomination.

Dole has consistently led Bowles in polls, and some Democrats, after initial optimism, are growing pessimistic about their prospects of winning the seat that is being given up by Republican Jesse Helms.

* Wisconsin: The race for the state's Democratic gubernatorial nomination could be one of the evening's closest. State Atty. Gen. Jim Doyle has led in the polls all year, but the latest surveys show him in a virtual dead heat with Rep. Thomas M. Barrett and Kathleen Falk, a county official. Barrett, who represents a Milwaukee district in Congress, may have the best field operation.

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