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    Democrats' Ire Fuels Race for Florida

    BY Steve Miller
    09/05/2001
    by Steve Miller on 9/5/01.

    WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Democratic Party headquarters in Palm Beach County is 700 square feet of flaming rhetoric and unapologetic anger.

    Nine months after the end of the Florida recount wars, the county's Democrats still nurse a combustible brand of vitriol that, as one party operative here says, "will eventually decide the 2004 presidential election."

    Newspaper reporters still write about the fallout. Radio talk-show callers still lament or celebrate it, depending on their ideology.

    The now-legendary ballot recount wars have galvanized the Democratic Party here in the county that was at the center of the battle.

    "We deserve the governor's mansion, and we have a field of strong candidates to do it," says Cathy Dubin, the party's executive director.

    "You will never see another election like the 2002 election," she promises while fielding phone calls from possible challengers to Gov. Jeb Bush. "You will never see so many people vote."

    "We deserve the White House," Miss Dubin says with bluster.

    Then comes an avalanche of phone messages. Former Ambassador Pete Peterson's camp calls, then state Rep. Lois Frankel's office calls.

    It is mayhem at ground zero.

    "What it all did was woke up Democrats throughout the state," says Miss Dubin, a calm, cool 50-year-old blonde who took the reins as director in May. "We had lost this state. It used to be a Democratic state. Now it will be again."

    That reclamation will start with the governor's race, adds Monte Friedkin, the chairman of the party.

    "We can bring so many votes that this county will affect the whole state," Mr. Friedkin says. "We want to look good. . . . We were under a national microscope for five weeks last year."

    The Palm Beach County party has 304,000 registered members and is taking aim at the county's 118,000 unaffiliated voters. The unofficial kickoff to this charge is a Nov. 7 gala fund-raiser at the local entertainment complex. Miss Dubin promises 6,400 determined Democrats at the event.

    GOP COUNTERS

    President Bush has already been to Florida four times in his eight months in office. Cabinet secretaries have attended two dozen dinners and lunches for civic and political groups, and the Republican National Committee in June hired a political consultant dedicated solely to Florida.

    The reasoning behind that unprecedented hiring is simple. The party fears that a close governor's race in Florida could hamstring the president's chances in the state in 2004.

    Republicans earlier this year moved their Palm Beach County headquarters from a dowdy strip mall shared with a tattoo parlor to a fourth-floor suite in a 16-story office building.

    They bought new computers, new desks and recruited a new executive director, Danielle Morris, who came from the Washington, D.C., public interest group Citizens for a Sound Economy.

    "At this time next year, we will be the most important Republican county group in the country," the 27-year-old Miss Morris says. Her response to the Democrats' rallying is to do some of her own.

    She has met with Republican groups of every description: blacks, Jews, women, Hispanics, lawyers, teachers.

    She has even nurtured a Haitian Republican group, tapping the city's 100,000 Haitians.

    "We started forming these coalitions in December," Miss Morris says.

    Her office is quiet but adorned with the ornaments of victory. Two "Sore-Loserman" signs are among the art that hangs on the freshly painted walls of the main room in the three-room suite.

    "We really are trying to reach everybody we can," continues Miss Morris. "The Democrats' anger will be used in every way to get people jazzed up for next year's election. It will be a recurring theme. But it sure isn't very positive."

    In this wealthy town, which a recent report in Forbes magazine said has 16 billionaires, Republicans have been regarded by their foes as polo-playing, country-club whites.

    The new inclusion campaign banks on easing that perception and attracting some new faces.

    This month, a group of 100 local black Republicans are invited to gather at the PGA National Resort and Spa Country Club to discuss the gubernatorial election.

    "The party now realizes that every vote counts and is trying to reach out to anyone and everyone," says meeting coordinator Carla Bryant.

    But while the Republicans' fund raising is stellar, its enrollment of registered voters is flagging at 2,464 since January. The Democrats have signed up more than 6,000 new voters.

    FOCUS ON GOVERNORSHIP

    "The governor's race here in 2002 will define the 2004 presidential race," says Democratic County Commissioner Carol Roberts, who was a pivotal figure in the recount as a member of the election board.

    She is backing Mr. Peterson for governor because former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who entered the race yesterday, might be hurt by her actions at the Justice Department.

    "If it were just policies, that would be fine," Miss Roberts said. "But I would like to see someone running who doesn't have to defend a record that has Elian Gonzalez and Waco."

    Miss Reno has been in West Palm Beach twice in the past two weeks. Her appearance at the Century Village retirement village is legendary, at least among some of the 14,000 residents.

    "We had three to four thousand for Janet Reno, and everybody loved her," says Mae Duke, a former New Yorker and president of the United Democratic Club of Century Village.

    Many of the residents at the sprawling complex are New Yorkers, and about 90 percent vote for Democrats.

    "A Republican can't even walk down the street over there any more," says George Dempsey, a local Republican and restaurateur.

    "After the election was over, I got calls all the time from people asking what they could do," Mrs. Duke says. The club boosted its rolls by about 200 people to the current 600.

    The club's vice president is Sam Oser, an amicable 75-year-old ex-Marine who stayed up until 4 a.m. setting up chairs for Miss Reno's visit - which became an epiphany of sorts for him.

    "I realized that Jeb Bush could be beat," Mr. Oser says.

    Mr. Friedkin, the county Democratic Party chairman, is sure he has it figured out - the Bush brothers are inextricably linked.

    "The whole 2002 governor's election is going to be about George W. Bush," Mr. Friedkin says. "If people don't like the job he is doing, Jeb Bush is going to pay for it."

    And if the president's approval ratings remain relatively high? A loyal partisan, Mr. Friedkin concedes: "If the president is popular, it will really help Jeb."