Why Jeb Bush Won Big

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Florida Governor Jeb Bush talks with the media after casting his ballot

This was supposed to be a squeaker. It was fair to expect that Florida Governor Jeb Bush's candidacy would be weakened by his state's 2000 election debacle. Democrats were smacking their lips, hoping to extract their revenge. And when challenger and political rookie Bill McBride pulled to within three points in polls taken earlier this fall, it looked like they just might.

But Jeb — and his state's oft-ridiculed electoral system — exorcised the demons of 2000 in convincing fashion Tuesday night. Bush routed Democratic challenger and political rookie Bill McBride — 56% to 43% — becoming the first GOP governor ever to win re-election in Florida. Meanwhile, the state, which as recently as the botched September primary races looked as though it still couldn't vote and chew gum at the same time, finally pulled off an election without a hitch. So efficient and smooth was the voting that within an hour of the polls closing, enough precincts had been counted to call Bush's landslide victory.

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Jeb got a big assist from his big brother. President George W. Bush had thrown all his weight behind the Governor — making more than a dozen campaign visits and tailoring a number of White House policies, on issues like Cuba and the Florida Everglades, to help ensure Jeb will be seated in Tallahassee when the 2004 presidential race rolls around. The Bush camp had hoped to take on former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, whose liberal cachet might have alienated Florida's large mass of independent and centrist voters. But the more conservative McBride, 57, who once ran Florida's largest law firm, upset Reno and made a race of it by championing the youth issues where Jeb seemed vulnerable: the state's abysmal education and child welfare systems.

Then McBride betrayed his political inexperience by letting Jeb turn the tables and make taxes the race's central issue. When McBride failed to articulate how he'd pay for improved schooling in Florida, Jeb pounced and successfully labeled McBride a tax-and-spend Democrat, political death in tax-allergic Florida, which still resists a state income tax. "This turned from an election spotlighted on education to one focused on pocketbook issues," says Susan MacManus, a leading Florida political analyst at the University of South Florida in Tampa. While the chief voter concern was schools, she notes, Floridians were willing to entertain the notion of change. "But when they suddenly start thinking about all the economic uncertainty we're living under now, then change of leadership is a lot less appealing." Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas concurred: "People in Florida realized at the end of the day that Jeb Bush has their utter confidence." As for the national effect of the landslide, Cardenas added, "It was the Democrats who called [the Florida governor election] a plebiscite on George W. Bush's presidency. They'll have to live with those words now."

The race was all but decided in the final gubernatorial debate two weeks ago, when McBride, whose good-old-boy image was expected to win conservative votes in north Florida, came off looking and sounding instead like a Bubba caught in the headlights. What's more, although the national Democratic party had promised to throw epic resources into the Florida race, the Bush campaign's $30 million fund was able to outspend McBride by as much as 4 to 1. "The Republican war chest just buried us in soft money," said McBride campaign strategist Stephen Fox.

Not even a last-ditch campaign push across the state by Jesse Jackson and former President Bill Clinton could galvanize enough of the Democratic base to save McBride. The campaign even rallied around hundreds of detaine Haitian refugees in Miami last week in a not-so-subtle effort to raise the kind of massive black voter turnout that helped Al Gore run neck-and-neck with George W. Bush in Florida two years ago.

And yet, in losing, McBride may have scored one victory over Jeb. After conceding the election , he insisted that his education-centric campaign had at least "moved [Florida's] agenda to the right place" — and he seemed to be borne out as a ballot initiative mandating limits on Florida school class sizes, a measure Jeb opposed as too expensive, seemed headed toward a narrow victory.

with reporting by Broward Liston/Orlando