Janet Reno makes bid for Florida governor

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

MIAMI -- Janet Reno launched her bid for governor Tuesday, setting up a potential battle against the president's brother that could be the most closely watched political contest of 2002. Even some Democrats, though, say Reno faces an uphill fight.

The people of Florida want a governor "who's not afraid to make the hard decision, to stand up for those decisions," said Reno, who filed paperwork to open a campaign account in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

The campaign seems likely to resurrect some of the controversy that marked Reno's tenure as President Clinton's attorney general, from the cult disaster at Waco to the seizure of Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives.

But the race will be in the national spotlight primarily because of last year's overtime election that delivered Florida -- and the presidency -- to George W. Bush, the brother of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I've spent the last three months talking to people all across Florida, and I think they share my vision for Florida -- building the best educational system in the country, preserving our environment, managing our growth and standing up for our elders," said Reno, speaking to reporters outside her Miami-Dade County home.

Some Democrats wonder if the 63-year-old Reno can win. Polls show her leading the crowded Democratic primary field but losing to Bush in a general election.

Her backers say she could have the same populist appeal as former Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, who won a second term by beating Bush in 1994 in the closest gubernatorial race in state history.

"I kind of see her as a Lawton Chiles in a dress," former state Democratic Party Chairman Charles Whitehead said Tuesday. "She's a straight shooter."

Her supporters say there is no question Reno is down to earth: She has spent the last three months traveling the state in her pickup truck, telling people about her trips navigating the state's rivers and swamplands.

'It's Reno time!'

On her last day as attorney general, she made a surprise appearance on "Saturday Night Live" to utter the catch phrase the show created to parody her as a take-no-guff action hero: "It's Reno time!"

Many in the party's old guard appear to support Pete Peterson, a one-time Vietnam prisoner of war and former Florida congressman. U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Bob Graham persuaded Peterson to leave his post as ambassador in Hanoi to challenge Bush.

Although the two senators are officially neutral, they visited with Reno about polling data that indicate she'd have a hard time defeating Bush.

Tallahassee attorney Dexter Douglass, one of Chiles' most trusted advisers, tried to persuade Reno to stay out of the race. He said Republicans would spend millions to portray her as an out-of-touch liberal.

"When you get people telling you that you're wonderful and telling you 'I'll support you,' it's hard not to think you'd win," Douglass said. "I'd imagine it's like serving in combat: A lot of dead people never thought they'd get shot."

Reno, a Miami native, was elected Dade County's state attorney five times, but the race for governor will be her first statewide campaign. She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1995 but has said it would not prevent her from serving as governor.

A groundbreaker

Florida has never elected a female governor, but Reno has been a groundbreaker before -- she was the first female attorney general in U.S. history and Florida's first woman to serve as a state attorney.

Bush is trying to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in Florida. He told reporters Tuesday that he would continue to focus on improving schools, lowering crime and enhancing business.

"I've got a record to run on that I'm very proud of," he said.

Democrats, still seething over the 2000 election, have vowed to defeat Gov. Bush as payback for the election and his policies on education reform, affirmative action and the environment.

"This is like 'Romeo and Juliet.' Two families feuding, the Clintons and the Bushes since 1992," said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political scientist. "This is a continuation of that battle."

The Democrats already in the race include former Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, state Sen. Daryl Jones, House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, lawyer Bill McBride and Rep. Jim Davis.

A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research poll in late July found that Reno would easily win the primary but would lose to Bush 54 percent to 39 percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

With only 7 percent of those surveyed undecided, some Democrats worry that Reno would not appeal to swing voters crucial in a state that was almost evenly divided during the 2000 presidential election.

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