Not since President Nixon lounged around Key Biscayne with Charles "Bebe" Rebozo has the White House had so frequent a Florida presence. When President Bush rallies the GOP faithful in Orlando today, it will mark his fourth trip to Florida this year. All to help re-elect Gov. Bob Martinez, whose popularity drooped so low a year ago it was rumored Bush would shuffle him out of office by appointing him to a position within the national government.
In trips that rarely last longer than a couple of hours, Bush has raised around $3.4-million for Martinez and the rest of the state's Republican Party. That accounts for roughly a third of Martinez's total war chest of $10.2-million _ and does not include, of course, $1.5-million raised by former President Reagan last month.
The presidential visits dazzle the faithful and get Martinez in the forefront of the news. But lately the news, filled with new taxes and winds of war, has been less rosy for Bush. Instead of flocking to him, some Republicans have run.
And there is Martinez's strategy of calling his opponent, former U.S. Sen. Lawton Chiles, "a Washington insider" while eagerly and frequently embracing a man whom many would consider the ultimate insider _ former congressman, ambassador, Republican national chairman and now president.
The election year has also brought Vice President Dan Quayle to Florida six times, Marilyn Quayle twice and Barbara Bush once.
Why the White House south?
The re-election is crucial not just because GOP leaders want to make Martinez the first Republican governor of Florida to win re-election this century. It's crucial because the balance of power in the state Senate probably hinges on Martinez's re-election. And it's crucial because the GOP's fortunes in Congress could be improved if Martinez wins.
With control of the governor's mansion and the state Senate, Republicans would have a voice in redrawing the state legislative and congressional lines. With Florida projected to gain four congressional seats based on the 1990 census, GOP leaders would like to have as much say as possible in how the new seats are drawn.
So it's clear why the Bush administration has practically set up a White House-keeping in Florida. But have 13 visits by the Bushes and the Quayles helped?
"I think the only person who came here from Washington that's helped him at all is Barbara Bush," said Buddy MacKay, Chiles's running mate. "I think she's the only one that's believable."
It came as no surprise to the Chiles-MacKay camp that Martinez this week launched a new ad with an endorsement not from President Bush, not from Vice President Quayle, but from Barbara Bush. The reason, said campaign manager J.
M. "Mac" Stipanovich, was that Barbara Bush "is about the realest human being in America."
What has hurt President Bush is a different kind of reality, that of a huge federal budget deficit and the need for new taxes to reduce it. Bush said he wouldn't raise taxes, but now he's had to abandon that pledge. Next week he'll sign a new budget that raises taxes on beer, cigarettes, luxury items and income for most people.
So while Bush keeps coming to help, some candidates are running away. Bush first abandoned his pledge against new taxes, then proposed a budget to spare the rich from tax increases. His popularity declined, along with that of other Republicans. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last week showed, in a substantial shift from six months earlier, voters thought Democrats would do a better job dealing with the economy than would Republicans.
Martinez points out, however, that Bush enjoyed his largest margin of victory here in 1988, picking up 61 percent of the vote.
"Bush is still very popular in Florida," Martinez said. "He has always been more popular in this state and his visit will energize our people to help get the vote out."
Martinez said he uses the "insider" label to describe Chiles and not Bush because he considers an insider to be a person in the majority party who has been in control for a long time.
Visibility and money
When Vice President Quayle landed in Bradenton Monday, the band played, the crowd cheered and the TV cameras recorded the event for the nightly news.
"There's essentially three things that the president and I can do," Quayle said. "One, we can certainly raise the visibility of the campaign. Two, we can raise money _ and both of us have been quite successful at that. And three, we can energize the troops and encourage our base to get out. What is critical in an off-year election is who shows up to vote."
During Quayle's visit, a couple hundred people, many of them children, greeted the vice president and Martinez. One was Jan Wilson, who was there not to support Martinez but because her son, Steve, plays trumpet in the high school band.
Voter sentiment here "is kind of iffy," she said. "People are in a little bit of a quandary as to the ones to choose."
Wilson, who works for the IRS, is a registered Republican and she voted for Martinez in 1986, but she's not sure how she will vote this year. She sees the high dropout rate of Florida high schools and thinks Martinez should have done more to improve education.
"I think he's not been as forceful as he needs to be on a lot of issues," she said. "He's kind of been weak on some of them."
She said the visit from the vice president and governor might make a difference, though. "At least we get a chance to see them and know they're interested in our community," she said. "They know where we are on the map at least."
The reaction of Geoffrey Frantz would be more to the liking of the Republicans everywhere. He likes Quayle. "He's got a good attitude," he said.
But like a lot of those who are herded out to see presidents, vice presidents and other dignitaries, Geoffrey can't vote. He's only 10.
_ Staff writer Lucy Morgan and researchers Kitty Bennett and Kati Kairies contributed to this report.