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A Florida Vote=A Mess

But the big news after the latest fiasco is that a Democratic novice may have a shot against Jeb Bush

By Tim Padgett Miami
With reporting by Broward Liston/Orlando

But the big news after the latest fiasco is that a Democratic novice may have a shot against Jeb Bush

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Say this for Florida's dim-witted election system: it makes the hot-button issue in the race for Governor - education - more urgent.

During the state's primary balloting last week, especially in the populous southern counties of Miami-Dade and Broward, poll workers couldn't even boot up many of the new touch-screen voting machines, part of a $30 million upgrade undertaken after Florida's 2000 presidential recount debacle. Because of the voting fiasco, it took all of last week for state officials to confirm that Tampa attorney Bill McBride had narrowly, and stunningly, upset former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the Democratic contest to face Governor Jeb Bush. The two counties have until this week to revise their results, but a different outcome is unlikely.

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Bush, not without reason, blasted the "incompetence" of South Florida's Democratic elections supervisors; they in turn groused about insufficient funding and guidance from him. But a McBride victory might be a bigger headache for the President's brother than the voting snafus. "If McBride could catch Reno," frets one prominent Florida G.O.P. donor, "he can catch Bush." In a state where almost a quarter of the eligible voters are fence-sitting independents, centrist McBride spooks the Bush campaign far more than liberal Reno. If the 57-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran and fiscal conservative could indeed upset Bush--and the odds are still long, with polls showing a 51%-to-37% Bush lead--it would be triple revenge for Democrats: payback for the disputed 2000 presidential outcome, a significant midterm body blow to the White House and, most important, a Jeb-less Florida in 2004. As a result, both national parties may pour record millions into the state during the next seven weeks.

Six months ago, any threat to Bush's re-election seemed unthinkable. But this summer, as Florida's well-publicized child-welfare tragedies mounted, kids' issues took front stage for voters who once considered their state a retirement community. Reflecting a Sunbelt trend, Florida's youth-population growth outpaced that of the elderly in the 1990s for the first time in the state's history--and its dysfunctional, overcrowded schools look woefully unprepared for that shift. Bush has pushed education reform, assigning A+ to F grades for schools statewide in an effort to raise test scores. Still, Florida ranks 40th in K-12 per-pupil spending. It's a key reason why tax-allergic Floridians have put expensive initiatives for universal pre-K and class-size limits on the Nov. 5 ballot--and why both items are favored in polls. As McBride sees it, the problem for Bush and his conservative legislature is that their emphasis on testing and vouchers--and controversial tax breaks for businesses that fund scholarships to send students to private schools--seems out of step with the peninsula's apparent new desire to invest in public education. "They're in an ideological rut," says McBride, who pledges to raise revenue for public schools with a cigarette-tax increase.

Before he gets a chance to make that case, however, McBride has a primary mess on his hands. Reno has refused to concede McBride's win, since the worst voting problems occurred in her stronghold counties; she even asked for a manual recount, but state officials quickly refused. Still, how did she squander a more than 20-point poll lead over McBride, who has never held elected office? Despite Reno's celebrity and hold over liberal South Florida, Democratic donors wrote her off, convinced she would never capture enough of the conservative north. Her feckless campaign, whose only highlight was an oft-satirized Miami Beach dance party, prompted even the state's liberal teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, to endorse McBride. "Reno just didn't convey a specific message on the issues that matter this year," says the FEA's president, Maureen Dinnen. McBride's profile also got an unintended lift from Bush: preferring to face Reno in November, the Governor's campaign ran attack ads against McBride that backfired when they catapulted his name recognition.

Bush immediately went on the education offensive last week, arguing on the stump that he has raised K-12 spending by some $3 billion. He says his testing crusade, designed to make disastrous school systems like Miami's "more accountable," means "fewer 16-year-olds in Florida are reading at fifth-grade levels." At least Bush and McBride agree on what the crucial issue is.



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