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McBride Claims Victory in Florida

Primary: Voting irregularities cloud Janet Reno's bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. She may fight results in court.

September 13, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — With 100% of the ballots finally tallied in Florida's messy Democratic primary, neophyte politician Bill McBride claimed victory Thursday after unofficial returns showed him defeating Janet Reno by more than 8,000 votes for the right to challenge Gov. Jeb Bush in November.

But the state's top election official has not yet formally proclaimed McBride the winner, and Reno, the former U.S. attorney general, has not conceded defeat. She was considering a legal challenge Thursday as her campaign workers were compiling affidavits from hundreds of voters who claimed that widespread problems at the polls kept them from exercising their franchise.

"It appears to me that Bill McBride won the Democratic primary," Secretary of State Jim Smith said during an afternoon visit to Miami. "If the Reno campaign desires to go to court about that, that's certainly her right and privilege."

The Reno campaign was specifically questioning returns in 81 precincts of her home county, Miami-Dade, claiming thousands of votes could be at issue. "There's some concern that in some precincts votes were not counted correctly or completely," said Mo Elleithee, Reno's campaign manager. "Until those questions are satisfied, we're going to stay the course."

McBride's margin of victory was 8,196 of more than 1.3 million votes cast, according to the Florida Department of State. Reno fell 1,445 votes short of triggering an automatic recount.

"I just want to thank the 600,000 people who supported my candidacy," McBride told supporters Thursday night at a Tampa hotel.

Bush, who will face the Democratic nominee in the Nov. 5 general election, seemed eager to battle one challenger after being beaten up rhetorically for months by the trio of primary candidates: McBride, Reno and state Sen. Daryl Jones.

"And that person, in the event it is Mr. McBride, he'll have to start laying out with more specificity where, what his views are," Bush said Thursday.

"I'll look forward to a hearty debate, and we'll fight hard. And if it is him, I commend him for winning the primary, and look forward to working with him."

Many political analysts say McBride, a former Marine infantry officer who later headed Florida's largest law firm, is more middle-of-the-road than Reno, a Clinton Cabinet member, and thus a more dangerous adversary for President Bush's younger brother. Ironically, the GOP may have helped to boost the once-unknown McBride by bankrolling attack ads against him.

"One of the reasons McBride is where he is is the television ads the Bush campaign ran against him," said Democratic state Rep. Lois Frankel, a onetime gubernatorial hopeful.

The McBride campaign refrained from saying anything that sounded triumphal.

"We're just trying to piece everything together," communication director Alan Stonecipher said. "Earlier in the morning, we had indications Reno was ready to call McBride and concede, but maybe they made a decision after looking at it [the disputed vote count in Miami-Dade] to follow it up and see where it leads."

The McBride camp was being careful not to offend the independent-minded Reno because it wants her support--and that of her passionate followers among seniors, African Americans, gays and lesbians, and other constituencies--in the bid to oust Bush.

"We'd like all this to get cleaned up and settled so Reno can be a party" to the next phase of McBride's campaign, Stonecipher said.

On election day, scores of precincts in southeast Florida opened late because poll workers didn't know how to use new touch-screen voting machines. Many voters found that their precinct boundaries had changed and that they were supposed to vote in unfamiliar places.

And poor organization and absent poll workers were rife in Broward County.

Thursday evening, almost 48 hours after polls closed, officials in Miami-Dade were still rechecking the count in 14 precincts. According to David Host, spokesman for the Department of State, election results by law do not have to be certified until Tuesday, a week from the day ballots were cast. So the deadlock among Democrats could last several more days.

After the 2000 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats filed suit over Florida's returns, with the GOP, and Gov. Bush's older sibling George W. Bush, ultimately prevailing. At the time, the issue was what weight to give ballots that had been improperly cast because, for example, the voter didn't make a big enough hole in a card.

If the Reno campaign grounds its legal case on voters being turned away from the polls because of human or technical errors, it will have a much tougher sell to the courts than the Democrats in 2000, said one of Florida's leading experts on government and the state constitution.

"A judge could invalidate the election and declare her the winner," said Joseph W. Little, professor of law at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "Usually what would happen in a case like that is the judge would exclude some votes that were counted. That's easy.

"It's going to be much harder in a situation where the argument is, 'The people didn't vote because of what went on, and if they had, I would have won.'

"I think it's a daunting task for the losing candidate in this case, barring the showing of actual corruption," Little said.

*

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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