Could Jeb Bush really lose?

Surprisingly close governor's race in Florida may pivot on education issue.

Jeb Bush isn't just running against Bill McBride, the Democratic challenger for governor of Florida.

He is also running against as many as half a million Florida residents who last summer endorsed a ballot initiative to rewrite Florida's constitution to require a cap on class size in public schools.

That fact goes a long way in explaining how it is that Mr. McBride, a political novice with a much smaller campaign war chest, now finds himself within striking distance of the brother of the president of the United States in one of the most closely watched races of Election 2002.

Rather than embracing the popular ballot initiative, as has McBride, Governor Bush warned that it might cost a budget-busting $27 billion and suggested that he had "devious plans" to undermine the measure should Florida voters approve it.

Recognizing his miscalculation, Bush has since announced his own plan to reduce class size in Florida, but he has not backed away from his concerns about the cost of the ballot initiative.

He has also sought to use the issue to paint McBride as a tax-tax, spend-spend liberal, out of step with average Floridians.

With 12 days left until Nov. 5, the ballot initiative issue is at the center of what is fast becoming a political street fight for enough moderate votes to tip the balance toward either Bush or McBride.

"Minus the education issue in this race, Bill McBride would be irrelevant," says David Niven, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "The class-size amendment is the foundation of the selection [of the governor]," he says.

Outside the state, political analysts focus on the broad symbolic importance of Florida's gubernatorial race.

An upset by McBride would mark a delicious victory for Democrats still smarting over the disputed 2000 presidential election in Florida. And it would complicate Republican chances of carrying the state – a crucial electoral prize – in the 2004 presidential race.

But for more than 60 percent of potential Florida voters, according to polls, the ballot initiative on class size is a top priority.

"The polls I've seen suggest that the majority of Floridians are going to vote for this. The numbers have softened a little, but still, 60 to 65 percent are going to vote for it," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

In contrast, neither candidate is receiving more than 49 percent support in polls of likely voters.

Both sides have been in attack mode. Bush has criticized his opponent for failing to offer specifics about how he will pay for the class-size initiative. In a widely run television ad, Bush even suggests that McBride might enact an income tax in Florida to pay for the measure.

Florida's constitution bans an income tax, and McBride says he would not impose such a tax, but the Democratic candidate refuses to offer more specifics.

Political analysts say that McBride's strategy of attacking Bush on education while remain- ing vague on his own approach to the same issue might backfire. But it hasn't yet, they say.

"It is a strategy that has put him in a position to win when he is the underdog in every respect in the race," says Mr. Niven of Florida Atlantic University. "McBride has been the Little Engine That Could candidate from Day 1, and he just stays the course."

Political analysts say that in a close race, it won't be enough for McBride to carry the traditional Democratic strongholds in south Florida, or for Bush to carry the more conservative northern counties. Both candidates must mobilize their base voters to achieve substantial turnouts within their strongholds, while also appealing to moderates in central Florida.

One potentially decisive factor for Bush, according to some analysts, could be Florida's growing Hispanic population.

Bush has concentrated not only on traditionally conservative Cuban-American voters, but also on voters of Puerto Rican descent and other Latino communities. He's spread his message through local meetings and Spanish-language TV and radio ads.

In contrast, McBride is only beginning to direct his campaign toward Hispanics, analysts say.

Kevin Hill, a political scientist at Florida International University in Miami, says polls conducted in Florida are underestimating Bush's overall strength, because they are conducted only in English.

"Among English-speaking Hispanics, Bush is winning 65 percent to 35 percent," he says. But he also says that 4 to 5 percent of Florida voters speak Spanish and no English.

"Among Spanish-speaking Hispanics, Bush is ahead 90 percent to 10 percent," Mr. Hill says.

Overall, English-language polling may be underestimating Bush's support by as much as 3 percent statewide, says Hill – a huge margin in a state that decided the 2000 presidential election by 537 votes.

Mr. Jewett at the University of Central Florida says that Bush's gains among Hispanics may be necessary to compensate for the expected loss of support among African-American voters, many of whom felt disenfranchised in the George W. Bush-Al Gore contest two years ago.

The governor probably won't receive the 13 to 14 percent support among African-American voters that he garnered in his successful 1998 campaign. Instead, Jewett says, that support will likely be cut in half.

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