Reno's gambit in Florida: Unconventional can win

Ex-attorney general lays the groundwork for a 2002 clash with Gov. Jeb Bush.

Janet Reno's entry into the Florida governor's race ensures one thing: Next election, the Sunshine State may receive almost as much national attention as it did last time around.

Bill Clinton's former attorney general brings a high profile - and a trailer truck of negative baggage - to a grudge match against incumbent Republican Jeb Bush. Conventional wisdom holds that the president's brother remains the favorite.

Then again, many pundits thought Hillary Rodham Clinton was a sure loser when she first declared her candidacy for the US Senate from New York.

"What she's counting on is that ... her unconventional style, and her streak of independence, will be very appealing to people," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Ms. Reno has been working the Florida picnic-and-parade circuit for months, making dozens of low-key appearances and putting hundreds of miles on her red pickup truck. On Tuesday, she made her interest in a bid for the statehouse official, when she filed papers to formally establish a fundraising account.

Floridians want a governor "who's not afraid to make the hard decision, to stand up for those decisions," said Reno after opening her campaign fund.

Elected to serve as Dade County state attorney five times, Reno has never run a statewide race. Nor has Florida ever elected a woman as governor.

In eight years in Washington, Reno was at the center of many controversies. Shortly after taking office, she ordered an assault on the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Texas, that led to numerous fatalities - including children - among people who were engaged in an armed standoff with federal authorities.

Last year, she ordered federal agents to seize young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives and return him to his father - a move that has earned her the enmity of much of south Florida's Cuban-American population.

Her health is an issue, as well. Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease while US attorney general. She has said that doctors have told her it should be no bar to service as governor.

"She's got a tremendous amount of baggage ... I think her base in south Florida seriously atrophied over the Elian Gonzalez affair," says Richard Scher, professor of politics at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Nor would Reno be the only Democrat in the race. She's not even the only Clinton-appointed official likely to run, as former ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson has shown interest. Others who have talked of a candidacy include US Rep. Jim Davis and state Rep. Lois Frankel.

Recent rule changes banned runoffs in Florida primaries, however. That means Reno only has to win a plurality of Democrats to become the candidate.

That's what some state Democrats are worried about. Quietly, a number are whispering that Mr. Peterson might be a better candidate against the telegenic - and male - Mr. Bush.

A recent Mason-Dixon poll found Reno an easy primary winner, but a loser in the general election - 54 to 39 percent. Only 7 percent of respondents were undecided. Some Democrats fret "that she'll win the nomination easily and then lose to Jeb Bush, because the polls show that so many Floridians have made their minds up," says Ms. MacManus.

But celebrity is the handmaiden of controversy, and Reno is a celebrity in politics. For many Democrats around the US, she is a hero of an exiled regime.

Democrats would dearly love to make Bush pay for what they see as the unfair results of last November, when the struggle over chads, absentee ballots, and recounts in Florida cost Al Gore the presidency. Thus money, advice, and consultants are likely to pour into the Reno campaign headquarters.

Party spokesmen note that poll numbers this far out aren't of much use. The state is becoming more Democratic as its non-Cuban Latino population grows. The senior vote remains unpredictable.

Florida loves populist candidates, and Reno comes across as just such an outside-the-mainstream sort of politican, insists state Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe. "If Janet wins the nomination, Janet can beat Jeb Bush," he says.

But if that is to happen, Reno is likely to have to quickly generate excitement and better poll numbers. As Mrs. Clinton's opponent in the New York Senate race, Rick Lazio, found, money and interest dries up quickly if you remain too far behind.

Jennifer LeClaire contributed to this report from Miami.

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