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Not yet a candidate, Reno jabs at Bush

Janet Reno made a few quick notes as she waited in the sweltering heat to give a speech to a crowd of North Florida Democrats on Saturday. At the top she wrote "beat Jeb," and underlined the words for emphasis.

About 200 Democrats came to a county park hoping for some red-meat attacks on Gov. Jeb Bush, and Reno didn't disappoint. Neither did state House Minority Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, the only announced candidate who showed up for the picnic and rally.

Reno, the former U.S. attorney general and Miami-Dade state attorney, tantalized another audience with a speech that featured some of her strongest criticism yet of the Republican governor.

"I want to see Jeb Bush beaten. Why? Because I want to make sure that we stop the erosion of our public school system," she told the cheering partisans seated at picnic tables under a park pavilion.

Reno ticked off priorities, which included an independent judiciary, keeping rivers clean, improving teacher salaries and reducing class sizes.

But the loudest cheers came when she said: "I want to be sure that everybody's vote is counted." Many Democrats here are still angry over the way the presidential election turned out. One woman wore a "Re-elect Gore in 2004" T-shirt.

Before Reno spoke, Frankel introduced herself as the one who has been "in the trenches, fighting every bad idea of Jeb Bush." When Floridians wanted every vote to count last November, she said, "he stood behind the skirts of Katherine Harris."

Frankel called for better pay for teachers, a patients' bill of rights and a woman's right to choose.

Stand-ins gave speeches for Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, who has opened a fund-raising account, and for two others who might run for governor. They are Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox and former U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson of Marianna, who has resigned as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam and is due back in Tallahassee Tuesday.

But the day belonged to Reno on Saturday.

If Reno is not running for governor in 2002, she's doing a very good impression of a candidate. But she did not say she was the person to beat Jeb Bush. She didn't have to. Some at the rally, who stood in line afterward to shake her hand and pose for snapshots with her, came away convinced she will run.

Shareeke Edmead, a Florida State University employee, waited in line to meet Reno. Edmead said later: "I admire a lot of the things that she's done. Just being a strong woman. Strong people are very important in this world."

Reno's reputed liberalism, her ties to the Clinton administration and her Miami-Dade County roots all combine to raise questions about whether she could attract enough support in conservative North Florida, where many Democrats vote Republican. Saturday's crowd did not answer that question, because Leon County is the most liberal part of North Florida.

The picnic was organized by the Democratic Club of North Florida. In the diverse crowd were professors and students at FSU and Florida A&M, retirees, small business owners and state workers, some of whom were reluctant to give their full names, saying they feared reprisals from the Bush administration.

A man wearing a name tag that said only "Jim" spoke to Reno for several minutes, but later declined to give his last name or be interviewed. "Sorry," he said, "I work for the Legislature."

Gov. Bush has insisted that his overhaul of the civil service system is intended to encourage initiative and to reward merit in the state workplace, not to allow cronyism.

Reno said she spent Saturday night at the home of one of her closest friends, Florida State President Sandy D'Alemberte, who was a state House member when a young Janet Reno went to work in the Legislature three decades ago.

Asked what she thought of the response to her speech, she said: "Very gratifying."