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Bush could use Florida comeback

Holy cow!

New Hampshire just gave a swift kick in the pants to the president of the United States.

Say what you will, but here's a fact:

For at least 40 years, no president has been re-elected after doing as poorly as George Bush did Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary.

Remember, these are Republicans voting against their own president. About 40 percent of them.

Heck, Eisenhower lost only 1 percent of his party's vote in 1956. Lyndon Johnson, who still had the nation's best wishes in 1964, lost just 5 percent.

Even with Vietnam, Richard Nixon lost only 33 percent in 1972, and Ronald Reagan lost a paltry 13 percent in 1984.

You might protest: But those guys didn't have a credible challenger!

That assumes that Pat Buchanan, a television commentator with no experience in public office, is "credible."

Besides, some of the guys who hurt the incumbents who lost were long-shots, too.

Look at how the losing presidents fared in New Hampshire. Truman lost 56 percent of his party's vote there. Johnson lost 50 percent in 1968. Ford lost 50 percent. Carter lost 53 percent.

If you're looking for more parallels, consider that each of the losers was cursed with a bad economy, like Bush.

Each of the winners presided over prosperity.

No exceptions.

Still, it is a little early to declare things are wrapped up, don't you think?

After all, all of the losers except Ford had other crosses to bear.

Foreign crosses.

Truman had Korea and China. Johnson had Vietnam. Carter had Iran.

Bush, in contrast, can talk about the collapse of the Communist empire and Operation Desert Storm.

You gotta admit, he's better off than those other guys were.

But if he's going to break with history and get re-elected, he had better get strong, and quick.

This brings us to Florida.

Florida has often been short-changed in the primary season.

New Hampshire gets all the early press, the front-runners get named, and Florida's role has usually been to say, "Yeah, we like that guy, too."

But now Florida, one of the "Super Tuesday" states that will hold their primary on March 10, seems like a perfect place for the president to recoup.

Florida is hurting from the recession, sure. But Florida's Republicans are a lot different from New Hampshire's.

For starters, Florida Republicans, especially in Castro-hating South Florida, care a lot more about foreign affairs, the president's longer suit.

Bush has a home-grown campaigner in the person of his son, Jeb, a Florida resident who has been busy this year working GOP circles (although not out of panic, the Republicans insist).

So it wouldn't be surprising to see the president popping up all over the place during the next 20 days or so.

Maybe Quayle a few times, too. Make fun of Quayle if you want, but remember he will be here to court Republican votes, and his hard work for state and local Republicans has won him a lot of goodwill inside his party.

But the president had better not take Florida for granted.

The last time Florida was in a situation like this was 1976, when Gerald Ford was challenged from the right by Reagan.

Remember, at the time Reagan was considered an extremist. Even kind of a nut. The mainstream of his own party joked about him.

But Reagan took 47 percent of the Florida Republican vote. A terrible slap to the president. Ford won the nomination anyway, but lost to Jimmy Carter.

In a way, we in Florida helped make history. We helped plant the seeds of doubt that got Ford beaten, and the seeds of credibility that got Reagan elected four years later.

Could it happen again? Could we be the state that puts Bush firmly back on track _ or drives him out of the race? (Crazy, you say? Whoever thought Lyndon Johnson was a quitter?)

But this is a heck of a time to have to call on the heart and soul of the Florida Republican Party.

The heart and soul of the party is fighting for its life in the reapportionment battles in Tallahassee, and looking ahead to what may be some very grim state elections in November.

For the second time in as many general elections, Florida Republicans may have an incumbent in deep trouble atop their ticket. You remember how well they rallied around the last guy. Oh, come on, you remember. Bob Martinez.