On the red-truck tour of Florida with Janet Reno

Tucked in among a row of flimsy houses and cluttered yards overhung with Spanish moss, the Wilhelmina Johnson Community Center seems almost deserted. Although the candidate is due to arrive at any minute, the small building, in an African-American neighborhood, displays no posters or signs.

A woman wanders up. "Is this the day Janet Reno's coming?" She looks around. "I thought there'd be a lot more people."

Former Attorney General Janet Reno may be running in one of the nation's most high-profile gubernatorial races, but her style as a candidate is decidedly - even deliberately - unvarnished. At more than 6 feet tall, she dresses plainly in cotton shirtdresses, wears little makeup, and blushes when introduced. She speaks so softly at campaign events that only those gathered close can hear her. Indeed, she listens more than she talks. And despite being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which causes her hands to shake, the overall impression she gives is actually one of stillness - and quiet determination.

Currently, she's driving around the state in her used Ford pickup on what the campaign calls her "red-truck tour." It's an effort to reconnect with voters informally, emphasizing Reno's deep Florida roots.

Florida's Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe calls her "the UnCola."

"She's running a very unconventional campaign," he says. "If she is able, particularly in this red-truck tour, to come off as more of a populist, that may dispel some of the fears some of the people in north Florida have about her."

Reno's challenge will be somehow to bridge the eclectic extremes of Florida's electorate - from the conservative Democrats in the northern Panhandle's "Redneck Riviera," to young professionals in the booming region around Orlando, to Jewish retirees and Hispanics in the south.

Certainly, it's an uphill battle. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's approval ratings are above 50 percent. Most polls show him beating her by at least 20 points.

Nor is she a lock to win the September Democratic primary. Although she has a strong lead in the polls, she recently lost several union endorsements to Tampa attorney Bill McBride, one of several Democratic contenders. Some state Democratic officials have expressed unease about Reno's health - particularly after she fainted while giving a speech several weeks ago. While she has strong name recognition, many voters have a negative opinion of her, based on everything from her handling of the Waco and Elian Gonzalez crises to her Clinton administration ties.

'Not short on nerve'

"I was shocked that she even considered running," says John Mouw, a Dade City resident who says he's no fan of Governor Bush but is undecided as to how he'll vote.

Snapping a photo of Reno as she sips iced tea in a luncheonette, he adds: "She is definitely not short of nerve."

That nerve is on display as she moves into the second weekof her red-truck tour, much of which runs through less-than-friendly territory for Reno, who is regarded suspiciously as a Washington liberal by many in north and central Florida. Driving through bluegrass country down US 441, the landscape is dotted with horse farms and mobile-home parks, and even the occasional confederate flag. Signs read, "Guns for sale," "Museum of Drag Racing," and "We need to talk. - God."

Though she doesn't avoid talking about her tenure at the Department of Justice, Reno also reminds crowds of her time as Dade County prosecutor. With a reputation as a strong enforcer of child-support laws, for example, she was popular and cruised through five consecutive elections.

Yet it's her time in Washington that's freshest in many voters' minds.

Small bands of protesters appear at several of Reno's events - an unusual occurrence for a candidate who is not currently holding office, and a sign of lingering anger over some of her past decisions. In each case, Reno approaches them deliberately and shakes their hands.

Speaking to crowds, she addresses head-on the unspoken question in the minds of many. "Why do I do this?" she asks. "I do it because I was born and raised in this state, I care about this state, I love this state."

Indeed, Reno's deep affection for Florida is evident as she describes the cypress-plank house her mother built on the edge of the Everglades, which she still calls home. An avid paddler, she once circumnavigated the state by canoe.

Her stump speech focuses on issues such as education, the environment, and healthcare. But she's happy to talk about whatever else is on people's minds - whether it's adoption and gay rights or the impact of the Enron bankruptcy on Florida's pension fund.

Her stands on the issues - as well as her fearlessness - have won her scores of fervent admirers, mostly women. At a downtown Gainesville rally, where local celebrity Bo Diddley entertains by singing, "Janet, Janet Reno" over and over, groups of students wave posters and cheer.

Women like her strength

"She's just a very intelligent, strong female figure," raves Lana Swartz, a student from Miami, who races over to shake Reno's hand.

"I think she staunchly stands up for what she believes," agrees Maureen Peterson, who took the afternoon off from her university research job to see Reno. Still, when asked about Reno's chances in the fall, she wavers. "I hope she can win," she says. "I do not know if she can."

For her part, Reno says that even if she winds up losing, the campaign will have been worth it. "There are too many issues critical to the state of Florida," she says.

If people aren't willing to run for office, either because they think the problems are too intractable or because they're afraid they'll lose, then "democracy is the lesser for it."

She pauses, and adds firmly, "But I don't intend to lose."

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