Despite the high-caliber help, Jeb finds himself in a statistical dead heat with McBride, a former Marine with a Bronze Star and a folksy manner who gave up a student deferment to go to Vietnam. Last year, when he found himself "screaming at the TV set, frustrated" at where the state was headed, McBride quit his post as managing partner of Holland & Knight, which he had built into the fifth largest law firm in the U.S. (his wife was once head of Bank of America in Florida), and launched his long-shot bid for Governor. McBride dresses like Columbo and campaigns like the late Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat who appealed to Republicans by walking the state and calling himself a cracker.
McBride has made education the centerpiece of his campaign and vigorously supports a referendum, expected to pass, that would reduce class size. In a tax-phobic state, McBride has proposed a 50¢-a-pack cigarette tax and unspecified spending cuts to pay for the school initiative. Bush, on the grounds that he doesn't support the referendum, offers no clue as to how he would pay for it should the measure pass. He had to apologize after he confided to concerned Republican lawmakers, unaware a reporter was present, that he had a "couple of devious plans" to thwart the proposal should it pass.
Jeb is more like Al Gore than he is like his easygoing brother. The Governor is a policy wonk who has to grind away for his successes. When George, not Jeb, was the first to win a statehouse, Mom exclaimed, "Can you believe it!?" Jeb isn't nearly as playful as his palm tree covered tie would suggest. At a retirement center in Boynton Beach, he solemnly shakes hands, quietly adding an "honestly" to his "I need your vote." He tells Time the race is close "but not as close as Mr. McBride's internal polls suggest. That's a fund-raising tool." At a school in New Smyrna Beach with the President, there are none of the usual little-brother jokes that Jeb never found funny anyway. The two then move on to a $25,000-a-person fund raiser at a Daytona Beach mansion.
The headlines have often been messy. Bush went after McBride for not apologizing enough for remarks made by a black minister who said the Bush family was "on a neo-Nazi right-wing mission." Even though McBride hadn't initially heard the remarks and condemned them as soon as he did, he wouldn't vow never to talk to the minister again. For his part, Jeb was embarrassed when a reporter caught him telling legislators that he had "juicy details" concerning the sexual orientation of the former caretakers for Rilya Wilson, the foster child who has been missing for 21 months. The Governor also made headlines when the state G.O.P. got a $50,000 campaign contribution from Bacardi rum after he wrote a letter to a presidential appointee asking that Bacardi get quick action in a trademark dispute. Then there are the family issues. Daughter Noelle's being in prison for drug violations elicits sympathy. His wife's trying to bring $19,000 worth of clothing from Paris without paying Customs fees does not.
Both parties have made this their marquee race. Republicans fear that a loss would be the only election-night story, a reminder of the 537-vote margin in 2000. Democrats are throwing money into the race as if it's already 2004, sending hundreds of lawyers to monitor ballot troubles. (Bush blamed inept Democrats for snafus on primary day.) Heavyweights, including Bill Clinton, are helping McBride. Party chairman Terry McAuliffe vowed last week, "We're going to knock off one Bush at a time." If it's close, it must be Florida.