Black Vote May Be Key in Fla. Race

MIAMI (AP) — From the pulpits of black churches, Bill McBride often recounts the first question posed by God in the Book of Genesis: ``Adam, where are you?''

But many black voters in Florida may be asking the Democratic gubernatorial nominee a different question: ``Who are you?'' A political neophyte, McBride is working to become better known among blacks and convince them their lives will improve if he beats Republican Gov. Jeb Bush on Nov. 5.

``It's very important who's in charge,'' McBride told a Miami congregation recently at a service that included U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. ``I'd like to be head of your family — the Florida family.''

To beat a well-financed incumbent, McBride needs blacks to vote in large numbers and give him their overwhelming support. To boost turnout, McBride is not only attending black churches but also speaking on black radio stations and courting black lawmakers. Blacks make up 11 percent of the state's voters.

Democrats need ``to stimulate maximum turnout within the African-American community and they haven't got a lot of time to do that,'' said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor.

Bush is also campaigning among black voters and says he is confident he can build on the 14 percent of the black vote he received four years ago.

At recent events with Haitian-Americans in Miami and black ministers in Orlando, Bush touted the increased number of black business owners contracting with state government and increased black enrollment at state universities under his watch.

``This notion that somehow voters are monolithic, that all African-Americans think alike, or Hispanics think alike, or all white folks think alike, is just ridiculous,'' Bush said in an interview. ``This is a diverse state and there's diverse opinions inside each group.''

The focus on black voters contrasts with Bush's famous response when he was asked during his failed 1994 campaign what he would do for blacks if elected governor. ``Probably nothing,'' he said.

As governor, Bush angered many blacks with his One Florida program, which eliminated race-based admission policies in the state's higher-education institutions and minority state-contract set-asides. It led to a sit-in at the governor's office in January 2000 and a Tallahassee rally attended by thousands two months later.

Many black Democrats also question Bush's role in the 2000 presidential recount, which gave his brother, George W. Bush, a 537-vote victory over Al Gore in the state and propelled him into the White House.

Recent polls show McBride moving to within striking distance of Bush, who was favored by 48 percent of voters compared with 45 percent for McBride in an MSNBC/Zogby poll released last weekend. The poll's margin of error was 4.5 percent, making the race a statistical dead heat.

But a survey released in late September for The Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times showed Bush with a surprisingly high 24 percent of the black vote compared with 65 percent for McBride. Democrats said the numbers were skewed — the poll's margin of error for a subgroup of voters such as blacks was 10 percentage points.

In a typical governor's race, McBride would already be well-known by the Democrats' rank-and-file — black, elderly and women voters. But McBride surprised Reno in the Sept. 10 primary with a coalition of north and central Florida voters, winning with only 25 percent in the party's traditional South Florida base.

The unconventional path to victory left McBride largely unknown to many black voters in three South Florida counties which largely supported Reno. The region is home to nearly 40 percent of the state's registered black voters.

Church visits — a traditional pipeline to black voters — have become especially crucial for McBride, who has spent Sunday mornings at churches in Miami-Dade County and the Tampa Bay region and joined black ministers during a stop in West Palm Beach.

McBride asks congregations to ``judge me by my friends,'' allowing well-known figures such as Meek, Reno and key black legislators to vouch for his leadership. He also invokes the leaders of the civil rights movement, the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson, while asking for a large turnout.

``Don't let them down because that's their legacy, the right of everyone to be able to vote,'' McBride said.

McBride hopes to generate the support Gore received among Florida blacks in 2000. Gore trailed the governor's brother in Florida early in the year but benefited from a massive voter registration drive by black leaders. About 610,000 black Floridians voted, nearly 50 percent more than in 1996. Gore got about 90 percent of those votes.

State Sen. Daryl Jones, who finished third in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, predicts black voters will come out in force as they pay more attention down the stretch.

``I think you'll see it really strong here,'' said Jones, who is black. ``These guys are not going to forget the 2000 election, they're not going to forget One Florida.''