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Alex Sink and Bill McBride have adjusted to new roles in governor's race

Alex Sink smiles with her husband, Bill McBride, just after she is sworn in as Florida’s chief financial officer in Tallahassee in 2007. Sink has been careful this year to forge her own course.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2007)

Alex Sink smiles with her husband, Bill McBride, just after she is sworn in as Florida’s chief financial officer in Tallahassee in 2007. Sink has been careful this year to forge her own course.

Long before Republican Rick Scott unveiled his campaign for governor, there was another man Democrat Alex Sink had to figure out how to handle.

Her husband, Bill McBride.

McBride is not the usual politician's spouse. He was the party's nominee for governor in 2002, engineering an upset victory over former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the primary before losing to Jeb Bush by 13 points — the widest margin in three consecutive defeats Republicans have handed Democrats since 1998.

As the candidate's spouse, McBride finds himself in a more subtle role.

He makes money-raising phone calls to their mutual friends and tells small Democratic clubs about his wife's corporate skills and motherly instincts, careful not to delve into issues or steal the spotlight.

"I have to make sure I don't stick my foot in my mouth," McBride said in a recent telephone interview as Sink's press secretary recorded his half of the conversation.

On Thursday at Scotty's Landing in Coconut Grove, McBride wore two Sink stickers on his shirt and sat quietly to the side as she launched into her stump speech.

He blushed and gave two thumbs up when Sink identified him for the crowd, recalling their courtship in the city.

At the iconic Versailles restaurant in Miami on Friday, Sink discussed issues facing Cuban-American community leaders while McBride roamed the nearby area in search of a guava pastry for their son, Bert.

"Bill's role has been behind the scenes," said former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor, one of Sink's advisers. "He has been very supportive."

McBride was the subject of one of the first conversations among Sink's campaign advisers, who viewed the situation as similar to what former first lady Hillary Clinton faced in her presidential bid in 2008: How to capitalize on the husband's valuable experience as a candidate without letting his large personality confuse voters and the staff about who was in charge.

Sink said she and her husband agree on "80 percent" of the issues. Neither she nor McBride would identify any policy differences.

"She probably disagrees with me 20 percent of the time. It's not 20 percent where I don't agree with her," McBride joked.

McBride initially introduced his wife at her first events, but not anymore. In a stop in Palm Beach County on Thursday, he didn't set foot on stage.

McBride has his own office in the Ybor City campaign headquarters, where he boosts staff morale with self-deprecating jokes about his role.

He's on the daily conference call to review strategy, but his advice is sometimes vetoed by a staff that is careful to avoid the appearance that the onetime Marine Corps captain and combat decorated Vietnam veteran is the de facto campaign manger.

"He's been doing really great," Sink said.

Careful not to let her bid for governor look like an extension of his 2002 race, Sink has assembled almost a completely new campaign team.

Longtime family friend Richard Swann plays a key role in fundraising for Sink, as he did for McBride. But Sink has hired new pollsters, a different campaign manager and changed her media consultant.

Some holdovers from the 2002 race were let go when Sink retooled her top campaign earlier this year. McBride was astounded by the changes, which he supported.

"There's hardly a political candidate in America that would have done what she did," McBride said. "She's really taken this campaign by the horns."

In addition to a better organized campaign, McBride said Sink has another advantage: Her 2006 successful statewide campaign to become Florida's chief financial officer.

McBride was the former chief executive officer of Florida's largest law firm, Holland and Knight, and an electoral novice when he launched himself onto the Florida political scene as a candidate for the top post in Tallahassee.

The last governor to win the office without at least one statewide campaign was Republican Bob Martinez in 1986, but he was already seasoned by two runs for mayor of Tampa.

While McBride and Sink are careful not to let her campaign look like an extension of his 2002 race, the political landscape this year is resembling the Republican tidal wave of eight years ago.

That year, Republicans won every statewide race, taking control of the governor's office and every Cabinet position. This year, polls show Sink in a tight race with Scott, but Democrats trailing in all three Cabinet races.

Eight years ago, Republicans reached their high water mark in the state Senate, 26-14, and won a two-thirds majority for the first time in the House, an important threshold to remove procedural obstacles.

This year, GOP leaders anticipate winning veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

McBride credits the wave of conservatism as the reason for the close race between Sink and Scott. He said Scott is the "least talented Republican nominee for governor" in his lifetime, pointing to the $1.7 billion in Medicare fines paid by his former hospital company.

So if Scott is a flawed candidate, could McBride beat him this year?

"I don't know," McBride said. "But I know my wife can."

He stayed on message. Just like a candidate's spouse should.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Miami Herald reporter Leslie Clark contributed to this story. Michael C. Bender can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or mbender@sptimes.com

Alex Sink and Bill McBride have adjusted to new roles in governor's race 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 11:08pm]

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