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Family, Politics Converge in Florida

Times Staff Writer

They couldn’t be from a more competitive family. They tease one another about their sports prowess. They even joke about height: Jeb, who is younger, stands an inch or so taller than his brother, the president.

But in politics, the family business, they depend on each other. And though only Jeb is on the ballot this year, seeking reelection as governor of Florida, President Bush has much at stake in the race.

Before this weekend, he had visited the state six times this year. On Saturday, his seventh stop found him shoulder to shoulder with his brother at a rally inside the University of South Florida’s Sun Dome here. To roars of approval, the president said of the crowd’s welcome, and of the support it offered his brother: “You’re lifting his spirits and I appreciate it more than you know.”

That may have been an oblique reference to the difficulty facing the governor’s daughter, Noelle, who has struggled with drug problems.

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The governor said he was proud “to see the president of the United States, my brother, in a leadership position during these difficult times.”

Referring to the Democrats campaigning in the state over the weekend -- among them former President Clinton, Jesse Jackson and fellow civil rights leader Al Sharpton, he added: “You could multiply that by 50 and I would take one George W. Bush.”

The two, grinning, exchanged brief hugs as the younger Bush relinquished the lectern to his brother.

It was President Bush’s fourth campaign speech of the day as he carries out a daily blitz on behalf of GOP candidates that will continue through Monday. He will visit the states with some of the nation’s closest Senate races, including Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri and Arkansas.

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Jeb Bush’s opponent is Bill McBride, a trial lawyer who upset former U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to claim the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Recent polls have given Jeb Bush a slight edge, but McBride remains within striking distance.

Along with obvious personal reasons for wanting his brother to win, the president has a strong political interest in the outcome. Winning Florida is often essential to the hopes of GOP presidential candidates, and in 2004 George Bush wants his brother in the governor’s office for what is likely to be a hard-fought contest for the state’s electoral votes.

“When you get in that voting booth, I’ve got a suggestion for you,” the president said. “Send Jeb Bush back to Tallahassee.... Jeb’s counting on your help and so am I.”

For many on both sides of Florida’s political fence, this year’s gubernatorial race also is a replay of the bitter recount battle that decided the 2000 presidential election. And that has galvanized Democrats too.

Clinton and Al Gore, his vice president and the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, have devoted attention to the gubernatorial race.

Across the state at Miami-Dade Community College, the Democrats brought out Clinton, who lauded McBride’s commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity during an appearance before a mostly black audience.

Clinton urged Democrats not to despair, Florida’s election controversies of 2000 and September’s Democratic primary notwithstanding. Those results particularly rankle black voters -- about 11% of the state’s electorate -- many of whom believe they were victims of a Republican plot to disenfranchise them.

“You need to tell everybody you can find between now and Tuesday, if you don’t go this time because of what happened last time, it’s like letting them take your vote away twice,” Clinton said to applause and cheers from the crowd of about 250.

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In the Sept. 10 primary, McBride narrowly defeated Reno, the Democrat preferred by the overwhelming majority of Florida’s black electorate. Since then, McBride has been trying to build bridges to the black community, and Clinton’s appearance was an 11th-hour effort in that direction.

McBride said at the rally on the Miami campus that the choice Tuesday is between an incumbent who governs for the few and well-to-do, and a challenger who will be mindful of even the neediest.

“I say to the people of Florida, if you like the status quo, if you think things have been good for the past four years, vote for Jeb Bush,” McBride said. “If you believe in fundamental fairness for everybody, you’ll vote for me.”

In his speeches Saturday, President Bush reviewed his administration’s accomplishments at midterm, but he also offered a preview of the rough road the nation may travel in coming months and years.

Last year’s terrorist attacks, the president told an audience in Blountville, Tenn., underscored the need for elected officials “who are clear-eyed realists, people who see the world the way it is, not the way we would hope it to be.”

That is the reason, he said, “why I started the debate in our Congress and ... in the world community about the threat to America and threat to our friends and allies from [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.”

He also took note of the domestic issue that could undercut his hopes for a strong GOP showing Tuesday.

“Our economy is bumping along; it’s not doing as well as it should,” the president acknowledged. But he sought to place much of the blame for that on the terrorist attacks. “After all, we’re coming out of a recession, then the enemy hit us.”

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In the party’s weekly radio address, Democrats urged voters to base their decisions on their concerns about the economy.

“People have been hit hard by the downturn in the economy,” said Tom Strickland, who has a solid shot at defeating Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). “If you agree that we need to turn things around, then I hope on Tuesday that you will join us and start to get our economy working again for all our families.”

In Florida, Republican political veterans readily acknowledge that a loss by Jeb Bush would provide energy and optimism to Democratic prospects in the 2004 presidential race.

A new U.S. poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found President Bush’s approval rating had fallen to 59%, the lowest it has been since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“The Democrats would almost trade control of the United States Senate for knocking off Jeb Bush,” said one veteran Republican political operative of the political effect a Jeb Bush loss would have on national politics.

But Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said it was family loyalty that has brought the president to the state time and again.

“The most important thing of all is, it’s his brother, his No. 1 political ally,” Bond said.

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Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in Miami contributed to this report.


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