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  •   Centrist Platform Propels GOP in Florida

    Republican Jeb Bush defeated Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay in the Florida governor's race. (AP)
    By Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, November 14, 1998; Page A2

    A few days ago, Mayor Jim Naugle sat in his office, reflecting on a letter he sent in February to elected officials in 400 cities across the state, urging them to support Republican Jeb Bush for governor.

    The letter was a gamble. Naugle is a Democrat in Broward County, the party's traditional stronghold in Florida. And Bush's opponent, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, was counting on a huge vote from the jurisdiction to propel him to the governor's mansion. But Naugle said he never worried about his decision, because "most Democrats in the state would have told you two years ago that MacKay couldn't win this race."

    Bush defeated MacKay in last week's election and will preside over a state that has undergone major political changes this decade. As recently as 1994, Democrats controlled the governor's mansion, the statehouse and held exactly half of the 40 seats in the Senate. In January, Florida will become the first state since Reconstruction with a Republican governor, House and Senate.

    In Florida, most experts agree, Bush won because he abandoned the staunchly right ideological platform he ran on in 1994, when he lost to Gov. Lawton Chiles (D). This time he emphasized a more centrist agenda and won over larger numbers of women, elderly, black and other traditionally Democratic voters. That same big-tent moderation, however, could make it harder to govern as he aims to please those diverse constituencies.

    Bush, by most accounts, is as conservative as he was in 1994, when he emphasized welfare reform and school vouchers. But this year he focused more on issues such as increasing money and resources to improve public education. More important, observers say, were his efforts to contact and court traditionally Democratic constituencies that he admittedly ignored in 1994.

    Those efforts paid off on Election Day, according to exit polls. Bush more than doubled his support among blacks, to 14 percent of the vote from 6 percent in 1994. He won 50 percent of the female vote, compared with 45 percent last time. That increase was magnified because women comprise an increasingly large portion of the electorate -- up from 52 percent in 1994 to 56 percent this year.

    Among the state's substantial elderly population, which made up 42 percent of the electorate, Bush received 51 percent of that vote, compared with 35 percent in 1994.

    "He started early and came to meet with us," said Amadeo Trinchitella, a Democratic activist from Deerfield Beach's Century Village, a retirement community with 11,000 voters. "He wanted to show that he was not a demon, like he was characterized as four years ago. His positions seemed more moderate and that helped him."

    There were, however, dips in support among some important constituencies. Support among Hispanics fell 10 percentage points, to 61 percent -- more a reaction of anger at the national GOP than at Bush, several political analysts said. Backing from white Christian conservatives dropped from 91 percent to 83 percent -- a softening of support that probably was a reaction to Bush's perceived move to the middle.

    In retrospect, Naugle said, his decision to send the letter was a smart political calculation.

    "The Bushes are very popular," he said, mentioning Gov. George W. Bush's big win in Texas and potential presidential candidacy in 2000. "Jeb could be president one day -- I think he's that good."

    Naugle, a self-described conservative Democrat, expects Bush to give localities the tools they need to improve their schools, including some sort of voucher program. Most Floridians, however, oppose large-scale voucher plans, according to various polls.

    Some black leaders courted by Bush over the past four years expect him to fulfill promises to help renew battered urban areas with tax incentives and other economic development initiatives.

    And religious conservatives said they expect the newly dominant GOP to promote a strong, socially conservative agenda.

    Interviews with some of those who supported Bush this year underscore the challenge.

    Democrat Chris Smith, a 28-year-old African American lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, endorsed Bush this year. He took a risk in doing so since he was running for the statehouse in the mostly black, Democratic Northwest section of the city.

    But Smith, who won his election, said Bush diligently sought his support and promised aid for his battered community. Smith said he had no substantive conversations with MacKay, and he said that typified the Democratic party's pattern of taking black voters for granted. Smith said Bush has promised help, but would not be specific.

    He emphasized that his support is not unalterable.

    "It's a gamble for myself and my community," Smith said. "But it's time that my district, a needy district, takes some chances. Jeb has put himself in the middle, and he can't stray to either side" if he wants to be reelected.

    On the other side of the fence was John Dowles, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. He said Republicans have a clear path to push a socially conservative agenda that includes restricting abortion.

    "If he doesn't, it's not going to do a lot for him in the next election," Dowles said.

    Bush was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment, but state GOP Chairman Tom Slade, a close Bush confidant, said Bush will focus on issues that unite Floridians across ideological lines, such as "creating a world-class education system" and reducing juvenile crime. On abortion, he will stake out moderate positions, such as promoting parental notification and restriction of late-term abortions.

    "I really don't think it's going to be difficult at all, and I may be the only guy in Florida who feels that way," Slade said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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