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Candidates try to stake a claim for contested Florida

Published Oct. 12, 2005

By this time four years ago, Democrats were waving white flags of surrender in Florida's presidential campaign. This October, though, they're cheering like college students at a football game.

Their man, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, is threatening the hold Republicans have had on Florida for all but two elections in the past 40 years. His strong showing in a state the GOP usually takes for granted means President Bush has to spend time and resources here rather than elsewhere around the country.

"It's competitive, which it hasn't been for a long time," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., citing a series of Florida polls, including a private Democratic survey, that show Bush and Clinton in a neck-and-neck contest.

It's quite a switch from the late 1980s, when it looked like the Republican revolution had taken hold in Florida. Bob Martinez won the governorship and Connie Mack won a Senate seat over candidates who were successfully labeled free-spending liberals. Michael Dukakis polled a dismal 38 percent in Florida in 1988 after his campaign staff pulled out of the state in early October.

What has happened to Bush's popularity in Florida is similar to what is happening across the country _ the economy is bad, the state's unemployment rate is at 8.9 percent _ and the state's diverse population makes it a good reflection of the country for 1992. It's a high stakes test, too: Florida's 25 Electoral College votes are vital to Bush because he's likely to lose the biggest prize, California.

Will Florida's generally conservative voters abandon their caution and embrace Clinton's call for change? Will independent Ross Perot rob votes from Clinton or Bush? How much will elderly people be scared by Clinton's claim that Bush will cut Medicare or by Bush's charge that Clinton will raise taxes?

The answers to these questions _ and quite possibly the key to the election _ lie in the Interstate 4 corridor that stretches across Central Florida's rolling pastures, frost-bitten citrus groves and sprawling suburbs. It is a place of country folk in pickups and yuppie transplants in Toyotas.

Both camps say these swing voters could decide the election, and the candidates' travel schedules prove their importance. After visiting Clearwater and South Florida, Bush went to Orlando on Saturday. Clinton will take a bus tour through Central Florida starting today, following a route similar to one taken by Vice President Dan Quayle this summer. The candidates can be expected to return again, as well.

Democrats' polls taken for local races in Central Florida show Clinton winning in districts that include Citrus, Lake and Polk counties. Bush received 67 percent of the vote in the three counties in 1988, but like much of Florida, these voters are willing to split their ballot for a moderate Democrat such as Graham or former Senate candidate Buddy MacKay. Democratic strategists say this year, Clinton is the type of Southern moderate who attracts these voters.

In more than 20 interviews with Central Florida voters last week, the St. Petersburg Times found a deep dissatisfaction with the presidential candidates. Voters complained the candidates weren't talking about important issues and were being too negative.

Most of the voters think Clinton would raise taxes, but they haven't forgotten Bush did the same thing. So the decisive factor could be whether Clinton can persuade these people he would spend their tax money wisely _ namely, on programs that help them.

A slight majority of the people interviewed backed Bush, but their support was lukewarm. The Bush backers tended to blame Congress for the country's economic problems. Several complained Clinton at 46 is too inexperienced and makes too many promises. One woman called the Democratic nominee "shady" and another said he is "too idealistic."

"There's something false about the man," said retiree Irene Osberg, as she ate a snack at Lakeland Square Mall on Thursday night.

"(Bush) is honest and he's better for the country than that other thing," said Wayne Warensford, 66, a rancher from Volusia County. "The way Clinton talks, (for) anybody who wants a program, he's gonna set one up."

To some senior citizens, Clinton's call for change is scary. The retirees say they have what they need _ their pensions and their home _ and worry Clinton's expensive programs will take that away by raising taxes.

"I know he's (Bush) gotten kind of old like the rest of us, but I don't think he's doing that bad of a job," said Irma Omans, 78, as she stopped during a stroll with her husband at Lakeland Square Mall.

"I think that younger man might get us into more stuff than we might want to get into," she said.

Still, there are signs of trouble for Bush.

Young working parents have been gut-punched by the economy in Florida just like they have in states such as Michigan, and they're just as ready to punish Bush by abandoning him this year. Clinton could win the state by prying away these mostly white, working people and persuading Northern transplants to vote Democratic like they used to back home.

"It seems like you work harder and make less than you did a year ago," said former Bush supporter Lee Nichols, a 43-year-old truck driver, as he ate at the Stir-ups Family Restaurant in Polk City.

As a rule, Perot's supporters were former Bush voters _ good news for Clinton. But the independent candidate doesn't look like much more than a spoiler, because to many he has worn out his welcome by his indecision over whether to run.

Donald Wietan, who speaks with the thick accent of his native New York, said he has decided the newcomer isn't trustworthy. Sitting in his mobile home in conservative Lake County, Wietan said he decided to back Clinton after seeing evidence of the recession during a visit to his hometown of Buffalo.

"Down here, you don't notice it as much, till you go home on vacation and meet the family. Geez! There's nothing," said Wietan, a retiree.

With voters still uneasy even about the candidate they're supporting, there's plenty of room for Bush and Clinton to gather support by instilling fears about the other. It happened Saturday, when Bush brought up Clinton's draft evasion and his brief attempt at smoking marijuana as a young adult.

Bush supporter Bud Day, a retired Air Force pilot who was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War, is talking up the draft story to audiences of military retirees in the conservative Panhandle. Bush won 70 percent of the vote in some Panhandle counties in 1988, and he needs a North Florida boost this year.

In addition, Bush continues to depict Clinton as a big-taxer, striking a theme that Connie Mack used to edge out Democrat MacKay in the 1988 Senate race. At the same time, Bush is trying to spread federal largesse around the state, first with a plan to rebuild South Florida after Hurricane Andrew and now with a call to keep MacDill Air Force Base's runway open.

"We have to expose the Arkansas record to people," said Jeb Bush, who is running his father's campaign in Florida. "Right now I think our job is to make sure people understand what they are getting with him."

Jeb Bush predicted his father would win by 10 points, and said the bad economy is the single reason the margin wouldn't be as great as the 21-point gap over Dukakis. Florida provided Bush with the largest numerical margin of victory of any state in 1988.

From the other side, Democrats are returning to a subject that helped Clinton in this year's Florida primary: Medicare. Clinton beat Paul Tsongas last spring with a vicious ad campaign built on the notion that his Democratic rival would cut seniors' benefits.

"What would the Republicans cut?" a Democratic National Committee radio advertisement says. "They're proposing sweeping cuts in Medicare _ slashing benefits for nearly 30-million older Americans and virtually eliminating all compensation for over 1-million disabled veterans."

Bush has proposed that Medicare beneficiaries earning more than $125,000 a year pay more for their Medicare, but, like some of the president's claims about Clinton, the rest of the Democratic statement does not appear to be based in fact.

The Bush campaign objects, but campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke shrugs off questions about her camp's claims about Clinton's faults. "This," Clarke said, "is the year of virtual reality."