Sunshine Bellwether

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Florida was supposed to be a day at the beach for Republicans this year. With Jeb Bush firmly enthroned as one of the nation's most popular Governors, his brother George W.'s presidential campaign would glide through the state like an airboat on the Everglades. And a Republican-controlled legislature--the first ever in the old Confederacy--would escort G.O.P. Congressman Bill McCollum into retiring Republican Senator Connie Mack's seat. Endorsing McCollum last month, Mack rapturously hailed "the good news for all Florida Republicans."

So why all the bad news for Republicans now? George W. Bush is trailing Al Gore by 8 points in a recent statewide poll. And polls show McCollum trailing his Democratic opponent, Florida insurance commissioner Bill Nelson, by 11 points in the Senate race. McCollum, 56, whose role as a prosecutor in President Clinton's impeachment trial sharpened his image as a partisan pit bull, is barnstorming Jacksonville homeless shelters and African-American churches in his Orlando district insisting that the more moderate conservative "is who I really am." Panic hasn't set in yet; but Nelson bets that "this is where the Republican jihad is going to be waged. The stakes are too high."

Florida, where Gore was probably best known for his Elian Gonzalez gaffe, is in play after all. At the heart of the struggle is the McCollum-Nelson contest. It could determine nothing less than whether Democrats can thwart Republican hegemony in a burgeoning, bellwether state that has the nation's fourth largest number of electoral votes (25) and help Gore pull off a coup against the Bush dynasty that might tip the presidential race.

But the question is how Nelson and the tropical Dems got to be competitive at all this year. Given that Florida is a demographic postcard of 21st century America-- "More a crowd than a community," state Democratic leader Buddy MacKay once quipped--the answer says a lot about where the nation's politics is headed. Florida has a long tradition of diffusing power among its chaotic grid of ethnic and social groups, making its voters perhaps the country's most pragmatic--the first hypercentrist electorate. Jeb Bush found that out when he ran an ideological campaign in 1994 and lost, then in 1998 became a compassionate conservative like his brother and won. "The country is tired of high-temperature partisan politics," says University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher. "Here, voters are fiercely independent."

That's one reason Clinton won the state in 1996 and Nelson is a Senate front runner. It's true that Nelson, 57, has benefited among Jewish "condo commandos" from Gore's choice of Joseph Lieberman as a running mate and from the ticket's emphasis on providing prescription-drug coverage under Medicare. But the former six-term Congressman from Florida's space coast (he once rode the space shuttle) has focused less on national issues than on state concerns such as hurricanes. He admits his clashes with the insurance lobby over exorbitant storm coverage "have definitely reconsolidated" the state's fraying Democratic base. Nelson, with his TV-anchorman looks, is also aided by the impeachment-trial image of the owlish McCollum lecturing like a high school teacher about lust. "I'm a moderate Democrat vs. an arch-conservative Republican," says Nelson. "Pure and simple."

McCollum, a former Navy lawyer, says Nelson "is painting me as something I'm not. I am a moderate, Jeb Bush-Connie Mack Republican," he says, "and I couldn't have been elected to the House 10 times in Florida if I wasn't." But state G.O.P. leaders privately concede that McCollum was not the center-right candidate Jeb Bush had hoped for. Still, though his record is inked with fights against the Brady gun-control bills, McCollum has a lesser-known reputation as a bipartisan legislator, working with Florida's Democratic Senator Bob Graham to fund major new antidrug aid for Colombia this year; and his stand with the Bushes on "more school-accountable" education reform, which has been well received in Florida, gives McCollum an issue with which to parry Nelson's insurance crusade.

Expect this one to get nasty. McCollum is already painting Nelson as a "Clinton clone," and pols who have faced Nelson before insist that he "likes close fighting with a dull knife," says a G.O.P. leader. Both candidates estimate they'll need more than $10 million to win--especially Nelson, who recently jetted around the peninsula with Clinton in Air Force One. Democratic insiders say Clinton has a keen interest in this race--namely, revenge against McCollum--which means McCollum may be the only politician this year to have a bigger Clinton problem than Al Gore.

With reporting by Brad Liston