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Reno's Run

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, June 13, 2001; Page A29

You might expect the leaders of a state political party to be overjoyed at the advent of a high-profile candidate to take on a popular incumbent governor -- a challenger with deep roots in the state, great name recognition, undoubted fundraising prowess and a grand streak of obstinate courage.

But in the case of Florida, and the surprise exploratory campaign of former attorney general Janet Reno, you would be at least half-wrong. Ever since late May, when Reno announced her interest in taking on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush next year, many party elders have found themselves in a quandary over her prospective campaign. Her poll numbers suggest she could easily win the party's primary, and an early Miami Herald poll put her within six points of beating Bush. But Democratic realists give her little chance of winning the general election. "You could see her becoming an easy winner in the primary and a disaster in the general," says a former state legislator. "I don't see her growing much past what she's got now."

If you put it to a vote among political reporters, of course, Reno would win the Democratic primary in a walk. What could be a better story than a campaign that pits the president's little brother against a figure as colorful as Reno?

No matter whom the Democrats nominate, this campaign was bound to have national resonance: It takes place at the scene of the dramatic 2000 election showdown; it involves a Bush brother, whose policies are close enough to those of the current White House to offer an early referendum (or at least the appearance of one) on the Bush administration; and it concerns the state that both parties will place at the top of their must-win lists for the presidential race in 2004.

In hopes of raising money out-of-state to counter the Republicans' anticipated war chest of $40 million or more, Florida Democrats are playing up the race's national ramifications. But this is a dangerous game to play if their own candidate has a controversial national profile.

Reno supporters argue that she would galvanize the Democratic base. But the blunt calculus of party elders is that Florida's core Democrats will turn out in fairly high numbers for any nominee next year; African American voters in particular were highly mobilized against Jeb Bush even before the post-election drama of the last campaign. But to win, says one Democratic insider, "You're going to need to be able to pick up enough of the 10 to 15 percent [of voters] in the middle. And you can't do it with a polarizing figure."

A figure like Reno. The problem is not so much her role in the Elian Gonzalez affair; Jeb Bush has something close to a lock on the Cuban American voters of Southern Florida anyway, and voters in the rest of Florida solidly supported Reno's resolve to return the boy to Cuba. (Though there is no telling what residual irritation could be stirred by a campaign that returned the phrase "Miami relatives" to the front pages of the newspaper.)

But Reno's perceived liberalism and her connection to the Clinton administration would be heavy burdens to carry into Northern Florida, where a Democratic candidate has to peel away at least some centrist votes. Reno maintained such a stubborn independence during the Clinton scandals that the White House came to fear and even loathe her, but Republicans will be happy to remind voters of the many controversies in which her Justice Department was embroiled.

And to the extent Reno's Clinton ties became the subject of the race, Democrats would lose their best chance to frame the election as a vote on the policies of whichever Bush brother can be more persuasively depicted as a menace to the environment, a failure at reforming education and a friend of the rich.

But no other potential candidate has stirred the grass-roots excitement Reno's announcement brought on. From a field of at least seven other candidates, party insiders have high hopes for Pete Peterson, the former congressman who recently resigned as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, to explore a run for governor. His history as a prisoner of war gives him a McCain-like profile, and his roots are in Northern Florida. But Peterson doesn't have Reno's high name recognition, and he isn't yet on the scene to counter her endearing appearances around the state behind the wheel of her red Ford pickup truck.

The more grass-roots activists get excited about a Reno candidacy, the more nervous the party power brokers get.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company