Primaries yield marquee matchups for fall

Florida sows electoral confusion again, as Reno's fight with McBride is dispute

Voters in several states will be looking at an unusually diverse roster of candidates this fall. There will also be some household names on the ballots – and perhaps one noticeably absent.

These are among the results, both predictable and surprising, of primary elections in 12 states Tuesday. They almost guarantee that the fight for control of Congress and governorships – at least in several key states – will be among the closest in decades.

Both parties, moreover, see reason for optimism in the roster of candidates that emerged from this week's balloting.

To be sure, most of the attention has focused on Florida, where former Attorney General Janet Reno remained in an undecided deadlock (as of noon on Wednesday) with Tampa attorney Bill McBride for the Democratic nomination for governor. The state once again has become involved in a fiasco involving malfunctioning voting equipment.

But other states produced candidates that are likely to result in marquee matchups this fall. Among the highlights:

• In New Hampshire, Sen. Bob Smith (R) became the first incumbent US senator rejected in a primary in 10 years. The nomination instead went to GOP Rep. John Sununu, son of the former governor and White House chief of staff, who had the support of the much of the state party establishment. He will now face Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic nominee, in November.

• In North Carolina, former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole (R) and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles (D) each won their party's nominations in the battle over retiring GOP Sen. Jesse Helms's seat.

• New York's gubernatorial race may now become a three-way – and more hotly contested – affair. Millionaire businessman Tom Golisano on Tuesday appeared to win the Independent Party nomination.

If so, he will appear on the ballot with Democratic nominee Carl McCall, bidding to become the state's first African-American governor, and GOP incumbent George Pataki. Until now, polls have shown Mr. Pataki leading Mr. McCall by double digits.

But Mr. Golisano has pledged to spend up to $70 million of his own money on the campaign, which could could draw votes away from Pataki and change the dynamic of the race.

• Washington, D.C., may be dealing with electoral confusion of its own over the next few days, as poll workers begin laboriously counting ballots by hand in the mayoral primary. Exit polls indicated that Mayor Anthony Williams (who was disqualified from the primary ballot because of forged petitions) is likely to prevail in his campaign as a write-in candidate.

Those funny voting machines

Still, the real electoral theater this week belonged once again to Florida. In its first statewide election since the 2000 recount, the state suffered embarrassing voting mishaps, with malfunctioning machines, precincts opening hours late, and scores of would-be voters turned away.

The battle between Ms. Reno and Mr. McBride for the chance to take on Gov. Jeb Bush remained too close to call early Wednesday. A possible statewide recount and potential lawsuits loom. The state had spent $32 million to upgrade its voting equipment after the 2000 debacle, but observers say that some glitches could have been foreseen. Not only were poll workers dealing with new touch-screen machines for the first time, but because of redistricting many voters were confused over which precincts to go to.

But the problems brought back floods of memories for angry voters who felt disenfranchised after the 2000 contest – and may give new urgency to national efforts at election reform, which has lately stalled in Congress. "For all too many Floridians, this is déjà vu all over again," says Elliot Mincberg, vice president of People for the American Way, who was in Florida to monitor the elections. "We are very concerned about the effect this will have on voters."

The key is South Florida

Early Wednesday, McBride was leading Ms. Reno by 45 to 43 percent, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting. But with returns still coming in from south Florida, where most of the voting problems had occurred, the gap between the two candidates was narrowing. According to the state's new election law, if the margin of difference shrinks to less than one-half of one percent, a recount will be mandated.

McBride's strong showing was a surprise for a candidate who, just three months ago, had little name recognition and trailed Reno by some 30 points. Analysts say his campaign benefited from the support of the state party establishment, which sees Reno as carrying too much political baggage from her years in the Clinton administration to defeat Governor Bush in November. McBride gained the endorsements of a number of key Democratic constituencies. But the biggest reason for his success may have been his fundraising prowess.

"The difference? It's called cash," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

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