In Fla. Race, Jeb Bush Finds 'Kinder, Gentler' Plays Well
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30 1998; Page A01
Two little words uttered at a recent campaign event underscored the change in John Ellis "Jeb" Bush since his ill-fated run at the governor's office four years ago.
At the event last week, sponsored by a group that encourages young people to vote, a high school student stood up to ask Bush what he would do to hire more public school teachers and reduce classroom overcrowding. Bush's answer: "Fund it."
Four years ago, when Bush, a Republican, was seeking to unseat Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), that question might have provoked quite a different answer. He might well have said that the problem with the schools was not so much a lack of funding, but interference of teachers' unions and unwillingness of liberals to consider education alternatives, such as school vouchers.
That was the old Jeb. The new Jeb, the one who has built an 18-percentage-point lead in the polls over Lt. Gov. Kenneth "Buddy" MacKay (D), has moderated his rhetoric and is reaching out to voters he admittedly disregarded four years ago. Not that he has reversed long-held political beliefs he continues to be a major proponent of vouchers but Bush sees the other side and better comprehends the nuances of the electorate, his supporters say.
Nationally, political observers are keeping a close eye on the race for another reason: Come year's end, Bush brothers the sons of former president George Bush could be sitting in the governor's mansions of two of the country's four largest states. Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) is favored to easily win reelection in November. Jeb Bush would be a powerful force in swinging Florida's 25 electoral votes to his brother, if he decides to run for president in 2000.
Jeb Bush has tried to avoid talking about his lead in the polls. "I don't follow the numbers," he said. "I'm running this race as though I'm 10 points down."
Minutes later, a supporter with a big red "JEB!" sticker pasted to his lapel walked up and patted "Gov. Bush" on the arm. "Aw, now that's a little premature," Bush scolded.
In 1994, Bush, president of a Miami-based real estate development firm, concentrated on his core issues of vouchers, cutting welfare and getting longer sentences for criminals. He denounced Chiles for not signing death warrants fast enough. And while he didn't emphasize his antiabortion stance, he didn't shy away from it either.
This year, he is more likely to talk about "compassion" for society's have-nots. And he's spent the last several months visiting more than 150 public schools around the state to familiarize himself with their problems.
He praised bipartisan efforts of the legislature to increase school funding, but struck a conservative tone, saying the spending could be justified because of previous efforts to decentralize the education bureaucracy. "If we change the system and move it to a performance-oriented system and an empowering system in the schools . . . there's nothing wrong with making education the first priority of government," he said at the youth-voting event.
"The issues he took in '94 were way to the right. Now he's moved way to the left, and in some cases is further to the left than me," said MacKay, who like Chiles is a former state legislator and member of Congress. He added, shaking his head, that in 1994, Bush "was talking about abolishing the Department of Education!"
While the race has been largely cordial, MacKay began hounding Bush recently about accepting hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from the Texas oil industry. In a state where most voters vigorously oppose offshore drilling, MacKay hopes the point will stick. Bush has insisted he remains opposed to offshore drilling and thus the issue should be moot.
Bush has been campaigning since soon after his 1994 defeat. In that race, Democrats portrayed him as a conservative zealot, hostile to the interest of blacks, the poor and working-class, and the elderly. Bush, who had never run for political office, occasionally played into those perceptions with gaffes on the campaign trail. At one candidates' forum, an African American woman stood up to ask Bush what he planned on doing for black people in Florida. Bush's answer: "Probably nothing."
Later, in interviews, he explained that he believed that it was wrong to single out groups by race and that by improving conditions in the state, he would make it better for all residents. Some blacks responded on bumper stickers with what they would do for Bush on Election Day: "Probably nothing."
Since then, Bush has worked to build coalitions with African Americans, among them T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami. Shortly after the 1994 election, Bush walked into Fair's Miami office. Fair said Bush had never attempted to contact him before the 1994 election.
"We decided that he wouldn't follow the dictates of Republican strategy, which is to ignore black people because they won't vote for you," said Fair, a registered independent.
Bush and Fair opened the state's first charter school in a Liberty City, a poor, predominantly black area of Miami with public funding and money from Bush's conservative Foundation for Florida's Future. Fair has become a vocal Bush supporter, helping him raise money and introducing him to hundreds of African Americans.
Bush's efforts overlapped conveniently with a racial rift that burst into the open earlier this year after Democrats in the legislature dumped Rep. Willie Logan as the party's speaker-designate. Logan would have become the first black speaker of the Florida House should Democrats win back their majority this year. His ouster infuriated blacks.
Many black leaders, most notably U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), have refused to let the issue die. Hastings, who is angry at MacKay for not fending off the coup against Logan, predicts Bush will get from 20 percent to 30 percent of the black vote.
Bush's efforts, combined with the racial divisiveness among Democrats, could pay off for him on Election Day. In the 1994 general election, Chiles defeated Bush with less than 51 percent of the vote in the closest governor's race in Florida's history. But it wasn't close among blacks, who gave Chiles 95 percent of their vote.
Last month, in a poll taken by Mason-Dixon Political Media Research, MacKay had the support of 57 percent of black voters. Bush had 17 percent, and the rest were undecided.
"The reality is that the Democrats need every vote that they can find," said Hastings, who for now is supporting MacKay's September primary opponent, state Sen. Rick Dantzler (D), who is trailing in the polls. "The even more harsh reality is, they need a large African American turnout. Ask Lawton Chiles what that does."
Some other black Florida politicians feel similarly, but say Bush should not be the beneficiary. "I told Alcee, `What you're doing in the end will throw Jeb the election,' " said U.S. Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.).
Two pollsters familiar with state politics predicted Bush's lead will narrow in coming months. But they said the black vote ultimately could make the difference.
"It's very rare for a Republican to top 10 percent with black voters, particularly this early," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon. "Even if [Bush's numbers] fall to 12 [percent], with his strength with Hispanics, that should be enough for him to win."
Bush has raised $6.7 million, a large amount in a state with a $500 contribution cap. MacKay has raised about $2.2 million. MacKay will be able to close some of the gap by accepting public matching dollars, which Bush is declining.
Bush has helped the state GOP raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in unlimited soft money, much of it from out of state. And he will benefit.
The state GOP began airing ads this month in several markets featuring Bush with his family tossing a Frisbee and playing with his dog on the beach. The 60-second spot did not mention Democratic opponents, but did make brief mention of two other candidates running for statewide Republican offices.
State GOP Chairman Tom Slade makes no apologies for Bush's name-brand, fund-raising appeal. And he argued that the party is staying within the campaign finance rules with its Bush ad. He acknowledges that President Clinton used much the same explanation to justify the Democratic National Committee's efforts on his behalf in the 1996 campaign. "Kind of worked, didn't it?" Slade said, laughing. "We're not slow learners."
Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella, a city commissioner in Deerfield Beach, near Fort Lauderdale, said Bush ignored him and his community in 1994. But this year, Bush has made several courtesy calls. Trinchitella, a retiree and influential Democrat, hails from the Century Village condominiums, where more than 15,000 other retirees live. In 1996, he said, 95 percent of Century Village residents voted for Gov. Chiles. This time, Trinchitella said, it is MacKay who has made himself scarce.
Bush "tried to show us that he was not a demon as he was portrayed in the race four years ago," Trinchitella said. "He comes across as soft, well-spoken and concerned. He's concerned about our Social Security and Medicare."
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