Florida Charts Future After Jeb Bush

By: - October 12, 2006 12:00 am

Democratic candidate for Florida
governor Jim Davis
Republican candidate for Florida
governor Charlie Crist

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — After eight years of dominating Florida’s political scene, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is being forced out by term limits, setting the scene for the state’s first gubernatorial battle in two decades in which there was no clear favorite.

Republican Charlie Crist , the state’s popular attorney general and winner of two previous statewide races, so far has the upper hand in fund raising and TV air time, enabling him to woo crucial independent voters in his race with Democrat Jim Davis , a lesser-known five-term congressman.


The contest for leadership of the nation’s fourth-most-populous state largely is being fought over Bush’s education legacy and skyrocketing property insurance premiums in the wake of the eight hurricanes that raked Florida in 2004 and 2005. But outside the state, Florida’s pivotal place in presidential elections gives added weight to which party wins the governor’s office. Florida is one of 10 states this year in which the governor’s race has no incumbent on the ballot; nine of those seats currently are held by Republicans.


Crist, 50, has consistently led in the polls. He handily defeated his primary opponent, his campaign coffers are bulging, and he has been engaged in a full-scale media assault on his Democratic rival since the day after the primary. He’s hoping to become the first Republican in Florida since Reconstruction to succeed another Republican governor.


Davis, 49, elected to Congress in 1996 after serving as a state legislator from Tampa, is trying to put the governor’s office back in Democratic hands to offset continued Republican control of both houses of the Legislature. He won a bruising primary battle and has been struggling to raise money to pay for the TV ads crucial to any statewide campaign in Florida.


Crist, who backed out of face-to-face forums with his Democratic rival on health and children’s issues, has had limited campaign appearances around the state. He’s relying on his TV campaign to label Davis as a tax-and-spend liberal Washington, D.C., insider who wants to raise taxes while he portrays himself as a consumer advocate and civil rights champion.


Davis is crisscrossing the state, holding town meetings, press conferences and forums, trying to energize the Democratic base – especially in South Florida and in black communities. He picked a black former state senator from Miami as his running mate and is hoping to capitalize on voter disenchantment with Jeb Bush’s education reforms, which Crist has promised to continue.


Florida is considered a “red” state — having twice elected Jeb Bush with overwhelming margins and given President George W. Bush his hairsbreadth win in 2000 followed by a solid victory in his 2004 re-election bid – but Democrats still hold a slight edge in voter registration. In statewide elections, it still can swing either way.

The growing number of independent voters holds the key to most statewide elections. While independents still like Jeb Bush personally, they join Democrats in being unhappy with how education has fared over the past eight years.


Polls have shown Crist with a lead ranging from 6 to 21 percentage points. The most recent poll released this week by Quinnipiac University shows Davis trailing by 10 points. While it may be Crist’s race to lose, pollsters say Davis faces a tough, yet-not-insurmountable task. His problem is that many Floridians still don’t know who he is – a result of his inability to launch a major TV offensive against the well-established Crist.


Education, especially public school funding, is among the overriding concerns of voters. Both candidates have promised to pour more money into building more classrooms to meet tough limits on class size that take effect in 2010, when kindergarten through third-grade classes will be capped at 18 students, grades four through eight at 22, and high school at 25 students. Both also have plans to increase the pay of teachers, who earn about ,000 below the national average, although Davis is seeking an across-the-board pay hike while Crist wants to reward the top-performing 25 percent of the teaching corps.


Crist has promised to carry on with Bush’s education policies, which include continuing with one controversial and unpopular annual exam that is used to grade schools, financially reward the best schools and teachers and decide which students get promoted and graduate. He also wants to resurrect a private school-voucher program killed by the state Supreme Court.


Davis, who opposes vouchers, wants to put more money into operating the schools and has sharply criticized Florida’s low rankings in per-pupil spending, graduation rates and college entrance exam scores. He also wants to stop using the state exam as the sole decider of how good a school is, saying Florida should consider other indicators such as class size, discipline and graduation rates.


Both candidates also are trying to placate angry homeowners faced with huge insurance premium hikes after two devastating hurricane seasons wreaked billion in damage to insured property.


Davis accuses the Republican Party of being too cozy with insurance lobbyists who have successfully pushed industry-friendly bills through the GOP-controlled Legislature. Crist wants to put more pressure on Congress to establish a national catastrophe fund.


Both political parties are turning to their national big names, including several presidential aspirants, to lure campaign donations and energize their voter base. Looking ahead to the presidential race in 2008, each party realizes how helpful it can be to have a governor on its side. 
Crist has barnstormed the state with Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a popular GOP figure among the tens of thousands of Empire State retirees now living in Florida.


Davis has campaigned alongside Democrats such as U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the unsuccessful 2004 presidential nominee; U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois; former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner; and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Plans are to bring in former President Bill Clinton, one of the party’s most prolific fund-raisers and a perennial favorite in the Democratic stronghold of South Florida, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.


Democrats also calculate that one of the best things they have going this fall may be Katherine Harris, a Republican who was Florida’s secretary of state and chief elections officer during the 2000 presidential debacle.


Currently a congresswoman, Harris is running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Democrats are banking that her presence on the Nov. 7 ballot will unleash a torrent of emotions from voters still angry over the bungled 2000 election that gave George W. Bush Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency by a razor-thin 537-vote margin.


If Davis does get elected governor, he would have a tough time getting his agenda through a state House and Senate expected to stay solidly Republican. Crist, who picked his running mate from the ranks of the conservative House leadership, likely would have a better relationship with legislators – although it’s doubtful he would be as successful as Jeb Bush, a hands-on manager who has run government like a business executive and whose star-like quality has won him friends at every level of government.

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