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Reno Admits Defeat and Goes Home

Politics: Ex-attorney general wasted a big lead in losing the Democratic gubernatorial primary. She has no political future, experts agree.

September 18, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — On Tuesday, a full week after Florida's chaos-plagued election and onset of a prolonged ballot count, Janet Reno conceded defeat, and drove off into the political twilight.

From now on, Reno told glum-faced supporters, she is a "private citizen."

It almost certainly was a career-ending move for the former U.S. attorney general, who is 64, suffers from Parkinson's disease and squandered a lead of monumental proportions to upstart attorney Bill McBride, who beat her in Florida's Democratic primary for governor.

"This is going to be a lesson in every campaign manual on how not to run a campaign," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "You do have to try to lose a 30-point lead. You have to work at it, every day. And she did."

As a result, Sabato said, "we now can write Reno's political obituary. Unless she wants to run for state agriculture commissioner or state attorney general."

At the wheel of her red Ford Ranger pickup, Reno ran a unique brand of campaign, raising little money, forgoing widespread use of television advertising and ignoring many state Democratic elders.

Though one of the best-known members of the Clinton presidency and a high-profile attorney general, Reno campaigned as a populist and outsider in a state where, according to analysts, neither of those types of politicians do well anymore.

Ignoring opinion polls and eschewing a television ad blitz in favor of pressing the flesh in one-on-one encounters with voters, Reno put 60,000 miles on her truck's odometer, but, observed the Tampa Tribune, it was ultimately a "road trip to nowhere."

For her mistakes, as well as her achievements, the native Miamian can credit her celebrated bullheadedness, say people who are close to her.

"No one who really knows Janet Reno would try pressuring her to get her to do something," a high-ranking member of the Florida Democratic Party said last week. "This is a woman who knows her own mind."

A recount of some ballots in South Florida showed her main opponent, Tampa lawyer McBride, with a shrunken but still unbridgeable lead of about 4,800 out of more than 1.3 million votes cast. So Tuesday, the deadline for submitting results to Tallahassee, Reno announced she had called McBride to concede, to congratulate him and to pledge her support.

"I think Bill can lead us," an upbeat Reno told crestfallen loyalists at her campaign headquarters in Miami Lakes. She said she thought the former Marine Corps officer and head of the state's largest law firm had the qualities to be one of Florida's "greatest governors."

Many in her party were coming to view Reno as someone who could not successfully challenge the Republican incumbent, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, and were relieved that she lost, observers said.

In the general electorate, not only does Reno bear the animus of many for having served Clinton for nearly the entire two terms of his presidency, but she is disliked, even detested, for specific actions as attorney general, such as sending a 6-year-old boy home to Cuba and the attack that killed 63 people near Waco, Texas.

"This really is the leftover from the 2000 elections," said Sabato, referring to the controversy that still rankles over which presidential candidate won Florida. "Democrats are really angry and they want to beat Bush. That helped McBride. As time went by, more and more people who sat down and thought about this realized Reno was weak and McBride would do better against Bush."

Being forced to face McBride in the general election, rather than the more polarizing Reno, is "Jeb Bush's worst nightmare come true," is how Democratic state Rep. Bob Henriquez of Tampa sized up the primary's result.

Reno, who lives in the Kendall home her mother built with her own hands, will not withdraw entirely from the public eye. She made clear Tuesday she will be happy to campaign for McBride, and that she plans to file a lawsuit over the election day glitches that her staff believes cost her precious votes.

"As a private citizen," Reno said, "I want to do everything in my power to see that the people of the state of Florida have the right to vote, the right to vote in a timely fashion, to vote for the candidate of their choice, the right to have their vote counted in an accurate and timely fashion."

On Monday, her campaign manager, Mo Elleithee, said Reno was ready to take Bush to court over the widespread troubles with touch-screen voting machines and other problems that marred the Sept. 10 primary. Republicans blame the problems on the election supervisors in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, one a Democrat, the other Democratic-appointed.

Unless she settles for a second-tier job, Reno, who began public life with a losing bid for the Florida Legislature in 1972 then was elected five times as chief state prosecutor in Miami, doesn't have many options for elective office.

Both Florida senators are Democrats, and even if McBride were to lose to Bush on Nov. 5, he would stand a better chance at being nominated four years from now than Reno would.

If Reno had any regrets, they were invisible Tuesday afternoon as she warmly thanked her backers in Miami Lakes for having made politics "an activity of joy" for her.

As early as today, when the state will officially certify the election results, McBride is expected to announce his choice for running mate. Associated Press quoted sources close to the campaign Tuesday evening as saying state Sen. Tom Rossin, the Florida Senate's Democratic leader, would be tapped to run for lieutenant governor.

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