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Reno Trails in Fla. Vote Plagued by Problems

September 11, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Former Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, once a prohibitive favorite for the Florida Democratic gubernatorial nomination, trailed first-time candidate Bill McBride on Tuesday night as the state's first big test of its new election system erupted in controversy.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, whom McBride or Reno will be seeking to unseat in November, declared a "state of emergency" and ordered polling places to remain open two hours longer than planned following reports that many voters had been unable to cast their ballots.

With about 85% of the vote counted, McBride, a Tampa attorney, was holding a 46%-to-42% lead over Reno. But, in an echo of the state's ballot wars after the 2000 presidential campaign, Reno advisors hinted at possible legal challenges if the final tally shows only a narrow gap between the candidates. Vote counting was continuing through the night.

That possibility emerged after widespread reports of delays, confusion and problems with new touch-screen voting machines ordered after the 2000 disputes over punch-card ballots. The problems were most acute in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where Reno was expected to be strong.

"We have a whole lot of questions and issues, and we can't begin to answer them tonight," Alan G. Greer, the Reno campaign's general counsel, said late Tuesday. "If we beat Bill McBride by 50,000 votes, there is no question. If he beats us by 50,000 votes, I think likewise there is no question. The problem is the gray area."

In other primary results, Republican Rep. John E. Sununu defeated Sen. Bob Smith for New Hampshire's GOP Senate nomination Tuesday night after a hotly contested race.

The result could be critical in November's battle for control of the Senate, where Democrats now hold a one-vote majority. Strategists in both parties have believed that outgoing Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic Senate nominee, would have a much better chance of capturing the seat for her party against Smith than Sununu.

In the night's other major Senate contests, Elizabeth Hanford Dole swept past minor opposition to claim the Republican nomination in North Carolina. And in the race for the state's Democratic Senate nomination, Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff for President Clinton, swept to victory over state Rep. Dan Blue and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

In all, voters were picking candidates in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Florida was once again the site of the greatest controversy as the latest ballot snafus threatened another clouded result.

Reno, attorney general for virtually the entirety of the Clinton administration, was the front-runner from the moment she indicated her interest in the summer of 2001. So formidable did Reno initially appear that former Rep. Pete Peterson, the candidate many centrists hoped to recruit, decided not to run. That left only McBride, a Tampa attorney and former Marine making his first bid for elected office, and state Sen. Daryl Jones, an African American from Miami.

For months, polls showed Reno maintaining a large lead over McBride but remaining stuck far behind Bush in general election tests. Those two numbers eventually proved incompatible. Concerns about Reno's electability drove many party insiders to back McBride and he raised significantly more money than Reno.

McBride used a late media blitz to close the gap with Reno. Republicans grew concerned enough about McBride to attack him in TV spots during the primary. But that may have reinforced McBride's central argument--electability--by allowing him to say that Republicans feared him.

Jim Kane, the chief pollster for the independent Florida Voter poll, said the attention McBride would attract for an upset victory could catapult him into competition against Bush. But, Kane added, any lengthy legal challenge over the results would likely "mortally wound" the Democratic winner.

In Arizona, Democratic Atty. Gen. Janet Napolitano and former Rep. Matt Salmon, a Republican, won their parties' gubernatorial nods for what's likely to be a close contest.

The New Hampshire Senate primary uncomfortably divided state Republicans between two well-known politicians who each enjoy a strong base of support.

Smith, who was first elected in 1990 and then won reelection narowly in 1996, opened the door to Sununu's challenge in 1999. Smith resigned from the GOP and announced he would seek the presidency as an independent; a few months later, unable to raise money, he abandoned the campaign and rejoined the GOP.

But lingering resentment over the episode provided fuel for Sununu, a three-term House member whose father served as the state's governor and White House chief of staff under former President Bush.

The most recent public polls showed both Smith and Sununu running about even in a general election matchup with Shaheen. But Sununu, a less polarizing figure than Smith, benefited from a sense among most Republican insiders that he would be a stronger candidate in November.

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