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Democrats skewer GOP with economy

The stock market is plunging, and 401(k) plans are shrinking. Corporate fraud cases dominate the news. Enron and WorldCom are turning big business into dirty words.

As Florida Democrats cast about for an issue to spark voters, they hold out hope that concerns about the uncertain economy and corporate responsibility will seep beyond Washington and into state races.

Democrats at the state party's annual fundraising gala over the weekend speculated that public skepticism about the willingness of Republicans _ from President Bush to congressional leaders _ to forcefully respond to corporate misdeeds could help them gain ground in races for governor, the Cabinet and the Legislature. The partisan speeches at Saturday night's dinner included repeated references to corporate scandals.

The economic issues hold some allure as a campaign theme for Democrats because the state's top political issue, public education, has failed to push voters in any clear direction.

Democrats still hope to turn the November elections into a referendum on Gov. Jeb Bush's education policies. But Bush holds substantial leads over the two leading Democrats, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride. And the Democrats' criticism of the governor's education agenda has not ignited their campaigns.

"They have got to be very frustrated," Bush spokesman Todd Harris said Sunday, "because the Democrats have thrown everything they could at us regarding education and it's gotten them nowhere."

Yet voters are divided over Bush's education agenda, which includes grading schools based on standardized test scores and vouchers for private school tuition.

The Republican incumbent recently spent $2-million on campaign ads promoting his education record. But opinion polls show that his lead has not widened and that voters remain concerned about the quality of Florida's schools.

"Even though the governor is doing an artful job getting to tell his side of the story, there is a much different reality out there," said U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, who toyed with running for governor last year. "Education is the 800-pound gorilla if Bill McBride or Janet Reno can engage the governor on it."

But the education debate has yet to galvanize voters. That's why Democrats are testing economic concerns as an addition to their list of campaign issues.

While the fallout from accounting fraud may have an indirect connection to most state races, it is at the forefront of the race for attorney general.

Outgoing Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, called corporate fraud one of the biggest challenges facing his successor.

"I don't care if you steal with a pistol or a pencil," Butterworth said.

Buddy Dyer, a state senator from Orlando and one of several Democrats running for attorney general, spoke for more than 10 minutes on the issue Saturday night. He promised to push the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass laws that would make it easier to crack down on corporate fraud in Florida. He wants the attorney general to have the authority to go after unscrupulous corporate employees, instead of just analysts and brokers.

"The current threat to our economy and Florida seniors is not the result of overregulation," Dyer said. "The culprits are corporate executives who have exploited regulatory loopholes and loose oversight in order to get rich at the expense of investors who mistakenly entrusted these people with their retirement savings."

How the national business and economic issues will play in the governor's race is uncertain.

Gov. Jeb Bush is closely tied to his brother, and the White House has been on the defensive about the economy and its response to corporate fraud cases. During his first two campaigns for governor, Bush's business dealings received close scrutiny by the media and by his opponents.

Since taking office in 1999, Bush also has been unabashedly probusiness. He has backed corporate tax breaks, the privatization of state services and the St. Joe Co.'s bid to transform the Florida Panhandle with an enormous development project that would include a major new airport.

Democrats argue that Bush's tax cuts have left less money for education and social services.

"This governor, more than most, has tied himself to special interests and has tied himself to big business," said Mo Elleithee, Reno's campaign manager. "The more people see how this lack of corporate responsibility has hurt so many people, the more the governor gets backed into a corner."

Harris said he saw no campaign issue for the Democrats to grasp. He said most voters "have continued to see this as a business scandal and not a political one." He also warned that McBride could be vulnerable if the debate turned to business.

McBride was the managing partner of Holland & Knight until he took a leave of absence from the firm to run for governor. The state's largest law firm dramatically expanded during McBride's tenure, but it has laid off lawyers and support employees in recent months as it tries to boost profits.

While the Bush campaign downplays the economy and corporate misdeeds as campaign issues, Republican strategists are closely watching for any sign that they might become just that.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas recently e-mailed party members, complaining about how national Democrats were "talking down the stock market and painting all corporations with a broad brush of blame for nothing more than partisan gain."

Stuart Rothenberg, the editor of a newsletter on national politics, said it would be a stretch to think that corporate fraud would be an issue to drive state races. But he said the scandals helped Democrats in general.

"It could well be," Rothenberg said, "that the change in agenda improves Democratic turnout and depresses Republican turnout."

_ Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Political editor Adam C. Smith can be reached at adamsptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

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