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Bush return signals battle in swing state

The Texas governor is visiting Clearwater today as Florida hangs in the balance.

Al Cardenas hoped it wouldn't come to this.

If George W. Bush visited Florida more than twice between August and the November election, the Florida Republican Party chairman reckoned last month, it would indicate the Texas governor is in a real fight with Vice President Al Gore for the state's 25 electoral votes.

Today Bush makes his second trip to Florida in 17 days.

He and his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, will visit the Top of the World condominium complex in Clearwater, where their father campaigned in 1992, and attend a rally and fundraiser in West Palm Beach. And the Texas governor will be back next week for more campaigning and another fundraiser in Tampa.

"The race has tightened in Florida, just as it has everywhere else," Cardenas acknowledged. "And we need to be competitive."

With Gore tying or leading Bush in the national opinion polls, both Republicans and Democrats now say the battle for Florida is a toss-up.

Bush campaign officials say they always expected the race to be close in Florida, where Bill Clinton became the first Democrat in 20 years to win the state's electoral votes in 1996. As evidence, they cite the experiences of Bush's brother.

Jeb Bush lost the closest statewide race in modern history to incumbent Democrat Lawton Chiles in 1994. But four years later, Jeb Bush easily defeated Democrat Buddy MacKay.

"The last two gubernatorial races showed Florida is a swing state," said Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's communications director.

There is more evidence that Florida is not as staunchly Republican as it appears from afar. As Jeb Bush was winning the governor's race two years ago, Democrat Bob Graham was easily winning re-election to the Senate. There are still 300,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida, and Democrat Bill Nelson, the state insurance commissioner, holds a solid lead over U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Longwood, in the race for retiring Connie Mack's Senate seat.

Still, only the most fervent Democrats thought Bush would not have Florida locked up by now.

Jeb Bush's approval ratings remain high halfway through his term. He helped his older brother raise five times as much money in Florida as Gore, and his supporters have helped organize Bush campaign chairmen in all 67 counties. The Florida Legislature is solidly Republican and so is the state's congressional delegation.

At the same time, Gore once appeared to be doing little to ingratiate himself to Florida voters.

His shifting statements about Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose failed quest for citizenship in Miami became an international story, did not appease Hispanics in South Florida and sounded like pandering to many voters in the rest of the state. Hispanics make up 12 percent of the state's likely voters, and nearly half of them voted for Clinton in 1996.

But before his re-election last week, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas would not appear in public with Gore because of the Elian controversy, despite being the most prominent Hispanic Democrat in the state.

Then Gore's flirtation with Graham as a possible running mate turned out to be overblown. Democrats such as Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state campaign chairman, could not hide their initial disappointment.

Gore supporters say the vice president has never wavered in his commitment to Florida.

In March, he celebrated locking down the Democratic nomination in Tallahassee. At the Democratic National Convention, he saw to it that Florida, not his home state of Tennessee, had the honor of putting him over the top in delegate votes for the nomination.

Gore has been to Florida seven times since March, including three times in the last three weeks. His running mate, Joseph Lieberman, was in Miami again the past three days, and his emergence as the first Jewish politician on a mainstream national ticket has energized Jewish voters in South Florida.

Bush has been to Florida four times since March, although he conducted interviews by satellite with television stations in several state markets last week. But he has been here just once since June, for an Aug. 25 speech on foreign policy in Miami. Democrats in Tallahassee are tweaking him by putting his face on milk cartons, like a missing child.

The airwaves crackle with television ads for both candidates, particularly in the Tampa Bay, Orlando and West Palm Beach markets, which are filled with swing voters. Both sides, counting the campaigns and the political parties, have spent an estimated $3-million already in Florida.

Republicans are as concerned in Florida as they are elsewhere that Bush's lead has all but evaporated. Former GOP state chairman Tom Slade said it was the hot topic at recent social events he attended in Jacksonville.

"It was the talk of the room: "What can we do? How can we right the ship?' " he recalled. "There is a healthy level of concern. If that grows to despair, it's damaging. If the concern is converted into energy, that's good."

Members of both parties, pollsters and political analysts point to several reasons for Bush's struggles here.

First, Jeb Bush's popularity among some conservative Democrats and independent voters is not transferring to his brother.

"If Jeb were running, this would be a different deal," said Karl Koch of Tampa, the chairman of Gore's executive committee in Florida. "It's becoming clearer every day that big brother George ain't Jeb."

Cardenas still thinks having a brother in the Governor's Mansion is an advantage for the Texas governor. But he agrees Jeb Bush alone cannot deliver Florida on a platter.

"We've got to identify those folks and convince them if they like Jeb, they'll love George W.," the state GOP chairman said of wavering voters. "Jeb is great as a messenger, but they have got to buy the message, and they've got to buy the candidate. I am convinced that they will."

Jeb Bush may be hurting his brother in one respect. His efforts to replace affirmative action in university admissions and public contracting with his own initiatives have angered many black Democrats. That has made it more difficult for the Texas governor to reach out to those voters as the Florida governor did two years ago, when he campaigned in black neighborhoods and won 14 percent of the black vote.

Gore also may be benefiting from the same voter satisfaction in Florida that is reflected in national polls. Economic and social trends are as positive in Florida as they are across the country.

Unemployment rates are down and help wanted signs are up in many storefronts. Downtowns from St. Petersburg to West Palm Beach to Miami are seeing new building projects go up. The state's crime rate has dropped, and its welfare rolls have plummeted.

But Democrats say Gore also is winning on issues that are particularly important to the state's seniors, who could represent one-third of the turnout on Election Day.

Gore has ripped Bush's proposal to let younger voters divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts instead. He warns seniors that could lead to a cut in benefits, which Bush denies.

Gore also has been promoting his plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. He contends Bush's proposal to subsidize premiums for drug coverage through private insurers won't work and will leave many seniors no better off.

Bush disagrees, but Gore's argument resonates with older Floridians at a time when Medicare HMOs are pulling out of the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere. When Gore started to describe Bush's plan to elderly Jewish Democrats at a Fort Lauderdale area condominium complex last month and mentioned private insurers, the crowd immediately started booing.

Bush's communications director, Hughes, said Gore's attacks on those two issues is one reason Bush is coming to Florida today.

"We need to reassure seniors that what they have been hearing is a distortion and misrepresentation of the governor's position," she said.

But Jim Kane, editor of the non-partisan Florida Voter poll, said issues such as Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs are pushing seniors and other Florida voters toward Gore. And Bush's emphasis on tax cuts and national defense make him sound like a traditional Republican at a time when the number of independent voters in Florida has swelled to more than 1-million, he said.

"This is not the same state it was," Kane said. "We're getting a less partisan voter moving in."

As Slade sees it, Bush had three options for winning Florida and two of them are gone.

He said the "throw-the-rascals-out" approach isn't working, and Gore evened out the personality contest with his passionate kiss with his wife, Tipper, on national television at the convention.

The remaining option, Slade said, is to convince voters Bush is right on the issues and Gore is wrong.

"That," he said, "is what's left for us."

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