"Republicans have ignored the black voters of this state," GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush confessed during a recent televised debate. "And I was a part of that. It was wrong."
Four years after losing the closest governor's race in Florida history, the younger son of former President George Bush has what looks like a commanding lead over his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, in part because he is not making the same mistakes twice. Asked in 1994 what he would do for blacks if elected, Bush replied: "Probably nothing."
This time, Bush has campaigned hard among traditionally Democratic constituencies--black, Latino and Jewish voters, for example--while learning to listen to views that conflict with his own hard-edged conservatism.
"I have grown through the process" of running for governor, Bush said during the St. Petersburg debate. "I have learned a lot."
Although MacKay has cut into a lead that a month ago was as high as 17 percentage points, Bush remains the clear favorite on Tuesday. A recent Mason-Dixon Poll showed Bush with a 51%-41% lead over MacKay, with 8% of likely voters undecided.
He Plays Up His Pragmatic Approach
The rancorous campaign Bush waged four years ago against Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles exacted a toll on his family, admits Bush, who was portrayed as a rich patrician with far-right views motivated more by a sense of dynastic entitlement than a desire for public service.
In deciding to run again, Bush did not abandon his conservative views, nor did he separate himself from his family. An invocation of his father's name is a staple of his stump speech, and supporters don't hesitate to mention that brother George W. Bush is favored for reelection as Texas governor and is a possible presidential contender.
But a famous name does not totally explain Jeb Bush's rising fortunes. The 45-year-old Miami businessman has become more politically savvy, playing down divisive issues such as abortion, gay rights and welfare while playing up his pragmatic approach to scaling back government programs by lessening demand.
Bush also has been helped in the African American community by disarray within the state Democratic Party, where many in the rank and file have expressed lack of enthusiasm for the 65-year-old MacKay, a lawyer and career politician.
In recent weeks, MacKay has made gains chiefly by appealing to those core Democrats--women, blacks and South Florida voters--who had been among the undecided, according to Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon/Political Media Research Inc. "But it's probably too little too late. Bush will improve his percentages among those same voters this time, and remember: He only lost last time by 2 percentage points to an incumbent."
A youthful looking man who stands 6 feet, 4 inches, Bush makes an attractive candidate who campaigns from the boardroom to minority neighborhoods with an effective (if somewhat over-scripted) smoothness. At a GOP-sponsored rally recently in Miami, about 600 of the party faithful--the majority Latino--turned out on a sweltering afternoon for free barbecue and 15 minutes of partisan boilerplate in which Bush railed against high taxes and violent crime while warning against complacency.
He also introduced his Mexican-born wife, Columba, and told the crowd that 22-year-old son George (the oldest of their three children) is teaching ninth-grade social science in a Homestead public school. He dropped enough Spanish into his remarks to remind listeners that he is comfortably bilingual.
Among nonpartisan observers at the rally was political scientist Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University, who sees in Bush a prototype of the Republican candidate of the future. "They are traditional conservatives, fiscally and socially. But what makes them different is that they are reaching out to nontraditional constituencies--Hispanics, African Americans, Jews--and emphasizing education as the path to opportunity.
"Compared to California, where Republicans seem to find every conceivable means to offend Hispanics, for example, there is a sensitivity here. This is a harbinger."
MacKay is known as a smart, progressive Democrat, a former Air Force pilot and three-term congressman who has been lieutenant governor since 1990. A native of Ocala, where his family farmed citrus, he speaks in the soft cadence of the South.
The GOP paints MacKay as a "tax-and-spend liberal." Bush calls him "a good man, a decent man, an all-right guy. But he doesn't have the answers."
Bush's media campaign is less charitable. In one television campaign ad, MacKay is portrayed as having spent his 30-year political career trying to push through tax hikes on everything from senior citizens' income to burglar alarms. The ad's refrain derisively plays on MacKay's nickname: "He's not my Buddy."
The MacKay campaign has responded with spots that hammer away at Bush's lack of experience in government and question his judgment. "We can't trust Jeb Bush to be governor," one ad says.
$7 Million Raised for His Campaign
Bush moved to South Florida from his native Texas in 1980 and, during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and his father, became a millionaire through banking, real estate and other business dealings. His deep connections in the business world have helped him raise a campaign war chest of $7 million, three times that of Mackay.
But some of Bush's business dealings have been problematic. In the 1980s, Bush befriended an HMO mogul who turned out to be a world-class swindler. Bush also was named as a defendant in two lawsuits alleging that he and other investors in the Jacksonville Jaguars National Football League franchise received special treatment. He has since sold his interest in the team.
Democrats' efforts to focus voter attention on Bush's inexperience have been ineffectual, according to the polls. He has been endorsed by more than 40 county sheriffs; the Florida Nurses Assn., which has never before backed a Republican; and three high-profile liberal Democratic state representatives, including Willie Logan, an African American from Miami whose January ouster from the post of speaker-designate threw the Florida party into turmoil.
"The split in the Democratic Party over the Logan affair played right into Bush's hands," Coker said.
"Bush has also moderated his image. This is a wiser Jeb Bush than people almost bought four years ago."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.