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If you want to be governor, this is what you have to do. You have to come to a place like this, Daytona Beach, Fla., seven months before the primary and nine months before the general election, here among that only-in-Florida mix of retirees, NASCAR acolytes, breakfast-buffet scavengers, Hooters waitresses, and bikers. You have to come here if you want to have a three-legged-deer-on-a-freeway’s chance in hell of anybody knowing who you are. But it is here where, for the first time this day, it feels plausible, even possible, that Bill McBride could capture the Democratic nomination for governor, that this isn’t just some Who’s Who lawyer’s quixotic exercise in self-glorification or some political junkie’s midnight fantasy. Here, late in a long stretch of campaigning, at a sleepy, rustic bed-and-breakfast along the Intercoastal Waterway on Florida’s east coast. When Bill McBride’s shuttle bus pulls up alongside the restored Victorian house, 150 largely senior-aged Democrats wait on the lawn, some holding signs, the rest loitering near a table stocked with home-cooked dishes and sugary baked goods. Even McBride’s hearty but skeletal campaign staff seems surprised at the turnout. Then McBride, the former managing partner of one of the nation’s largest law firms, Holland & Knight, takes the microphone. “I’m the only person in this campaign who’s run a business. And I ran a pretty good one. The largest professional organization in Florida,” he says. “The way you create great states is the way you create great companies or great organizations. You make sure everyone has a seat at the table.” The crowd applauds. They want to like him. More than that, they want to believe in him. It is now almost 16 months since the presidential election in Florida came down to furtive recounts at county boards of elections, extended legal proceedings, and ultimately the Supreme Court. The nation has moved on, with President George W. Bush’s legitimacy long since unquestioned. But Florida Democrats haven’t forgotten. They’re out for revenge. McBride talks about his military background. In Vietnam, he earned a bronze star for his two tours of duty. (He volunteered.) He was a captain in the Marines, and he speaks about how the principles in the Corps carried through building his law firm and his life. It resonates. Then he hammers Florida Gov. Jeb Bush using his principal theme: education. McBride’s got two kids in public school, he says. After the short speech is over, McBride glad-hands the crowd. “I’m favorably impressed,” says Matthew Thurmaier, a young man wearing a Habitat for Humanity hat. “He’s head and shoulders above Janet Reno.” Today is Bill McBride’s coming out party. He has come here to Volusia County, at the east end of the “critical I-4 corridor” (as his campaign staff calls it), for his first full day of events. He has already given a radio interview, toured a vocational school, met with newspaper editors, community leaders, and retired veterans. Here, at the Night Swan bed and breakfast in New Smyrna Beach, it feels like he’s gaining traction. You get the sense that if Bill McBride could shake hands with every voter in the state of Florida, he could win. Today, then, looks like a good day. That is, until a man pulls up on a bicycle and studies the scene with a puzzled expression on his face. “Who’s Bill McBride?” he asks. “And what is he running for?” Uh-oh. False alarm. Turns out the guy’s from Vermont. So he can’t be expected to know who Bill McBride is. The larger problem is that a substantial number of people in Florida have no idea who McBride is. A February poll showed that Janet Reno, the former attorney general who is also a Democratic candidate for governor, would whomp McBride 56 percent to 13 percent if the primary were held then. Luckily for McBride, it’s not until September. “We’ve got eight months,” he says often. (Even as, now, that number is actually six and a half.) That 13 percent figure, by the way, is a good thing, his campaign staff notes. A few months ago, McBride lay fallow in the single digits. “He’s doubled it and hasn’t done much at all,” says his press aide, Kathy Putnam. But this all begs the question, the one perhaps best posed by the wandering Vermonter at the Night Swan: Who is Bill McBride, and what is he running for? You can take the last part of the question literally (he’s running for governor), or you can look at it more existentially. Why would a 56-year-old lawyer with zero political experience want to spend a year of 15-hour days rattling about the state of Florida in order to take on the most popular governor in state history? McBride’s stock response has been this: “I had a good job and I was proud of it. But I decided I wasn’t going to throw newspapers at the television anymore.” McBride, while not anything close to a household name in Florida, is something else altogether in both his home city of Tampa and the national legal community. In Tampa he has held every sort of civic post imaginable, from chairman of the area Chamber of Commerce to heading United Way fund-raising drives. He earned a reputation for being the man to see if a Democratic candidate needed financial support or a charity fund-raiser needed a boost. “He was a mover and a shaker,” says Curtis Kiser, a former Republican state senator and a colleague of McBride’s at Holland & Knight. “When they needed someone to sponsor a table, he was the guy to come to.” McBride, who joined Holland & Knight in 1975, took over as managing partner in 1992. Following his vision of taking the Florida firm national, the firm expanded monstrously, growing from 300 lawyers to around 1,200. It acquired offices in places like New York, Chicago, and Mexico City. All the while, critics have derided Holland & Knight as “McFirm,” harping that the growth hasn’t made the firm a major national player and that its partners make dramatically less money as a result of the expansion. But in Tampa, Holland & Knight is viewed as a powerhouse and a good corporate citizen. The firm was a leader in providing spousal benefits to gays and lesbians and establishing a “living wage” for its janitorial and mail room workers. Three years ago, President Bill Clinton made McBride a featured speaker at a national civil rights conference at the White House. McBride’s wife, Alex Sink, is also a prominent figure, having served as president of both NationsBank and Bank of America. McBride also has on his roster D.C. media consultant David Doak, who helped propel California Gov. Gray Davis to an unlikely victory four years ago. “He and his wife make a tremendous power team,” says Kiser, who supports Bush. “They have business connections all over the state.” Mike Scionti, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee, had all of this in mind when he approached McBride last year about running for governor. After high-profile names like Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth demurred on taking on the popular incumbent Bush, Scionti went to McBride. McBride had been thinking about it. What bothered him the most, he says, was the progress of education reform in the state. Florida under Bush has become a leader in mandatory pupil testing and school evaluation. McBride says he was also frustrated by what he calls “the assault on the judiciary” by the largely Republican Florida Legislature. In recent years, the general assembly has pushed for widespread tort reform and for giving the governor more power to select state court judges. Deciding to run “was a hard thing,” McBride says. “I worried about it all. It would have been easier to find another candidate.” But McBride threw his hat in the ring early, before Reno announced. He quit his firm. “We were the original dark horse,” says Robert Bolt, a Tampa lawyer and former college roommate of McBride’s. Bolt, who switched parties to sign on as McBride’s deputy treasurer. “For the longest time, we couldn’t even get his name in the newspaper.” McBride’s early entry, along with his statewide network of business contacts, gave him a leg up in fund raising, where he still holds a significant edge over Reno. According to the most recent state records, McBride has raised close to $1 million. Reno sits at nearly $660,000, although her supporters say the disparity exists because she will not accept “soft money.” “His Rolodex has 3,000 names,” says Jim Carlson, a central Florida fund-raiser for McBride. “It’s a big advantage when your Rolodex is bigger than anyone else’s.” While Reno enjoyed a hands-down advantage because of her name recognition, McBride set about, quietly, courting key endorsements. Slowly, they have been rolling in. Much of organized labor in central Florida has gone for McBride. And he gained the support of the state’s teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association. Those who promote McBride say he’s the only candidate who can beat Bush. Reno, they argue, has too much baggage. “We don’t need to talk about Clinton. We don’t need to talk about Waco. We don’t need to talk about Elian,” Scionti says. “There’s a wave behind Bill that’s massive. It’s at the grass roots.” But it’s a long way to November. (For Reno as well. Some in the Florida media are calling covering her campaign “faint watch,” a reference to a recent fainting spell Reno suffered during a speech in Rochester, N.Y. And privately, many senior Democratic observers in the state say they are very concerned about her health.) Some veteran campaign watchers say that McBride or Reno will need as much as $15 million or more to have a shot at Bush. McBride will spend many days like the one in Volusia County, speaking to civic groups and senior citizens and, of course, asking for money. Take today. McBride left his Tampa-area home at 4:30 a.m. By 8 he is in the studio of a Daytona Beach radio station, answering questions. At 9 he is touring a county vocational school, visiting with students as they talk about disassembling car engines and computer hard drives. One student impresses McBride with his composure. “I wish I had that much presence,” McBride tells him. “You could run for governor right now.” The Presence Thing has been an uphill struggle for McBride. A soft-spoken and self-deprecating man, he has worked hard to develop a comfortable speaking style. “He has come a long way,” says Tallahassee political consultant Ron Sachs, who saw McBride give a speech in early March. “I didn’t think his candidacy had a real shot, but the stars seem to be lining up.” McBride’s persona is a grab bag of hard-headed business leader, dreamy progressive reformer, proud military man (“If George Bush wants to give me a uniform, I’ll go after bin Laden right now,” he tells one crowd), and Florida backwoods boy. The son of a TV repairman, he is prone to chicken-fried aphorisms reminiscent of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, to whom he is often compared. “I raise dogs,” McBride tells a luncheon crowd of local Democrats at the Daytona Beach airport, as he talks about Jeb Bush’s record. “You can’t change a bad dog by giving him a good name.” Along with being a dog breeder, McBride is a Little League coach. On the campaign trail, his SUV is filled with balls, bats, and gloves. One woman in the group says she will vote for him just for that reason. “My husband does that, too,” she says. He loses himself in crowds, so much so that his staff spends the day checking watches and dragging him away by the arm. “I’ve never met a man who exudes so much character and goodwill,” says Dick Fernandez, vice-chair of the Volusia County Democratic Party. “All he needs is for the people of Florida to get to know him and he’ll win.” It is Bike Week in Daytona, and as McBride’s rented shuttle bus rolls from stop to stop, the near-constant roar from the packs of motorcycles arriving in town hovers like a layer of the air. The shuttle bus, complete with a small “McBride Is On Your Side” sign in the window, has been rented by Todd Phillips, McBride’s Volusia County point man. Phillips, a Daytona Beach insurance salesman by trade who joined up when he searched the Internet for potential candidates to take on Bush, is part of a small cadre traveling with McBride this day. The group also includes Putnam, a former deputy press secretary to Chiles, and fund-raiser Jim Carlson. Carlson says he joined the campaign because “I wanted to work for a winner. I had a lot of bitterness from the 2000 election. I couldn’t go after George Bush, so I am going after the next best thing.” Also aboard is Richard Langton, a 26-year-old aide from the Tampa area who will quit the campaign the next day to run for the legislature. “[McBride has] energized me,” Langton says. McBride sits in a seat, alone. An earlier visit to a nursing home filled entirely with veterans seems to have left him wistful. “It’s like boot camp,” he says. “Some days, you wake up and say, ‘Did I volunteer for this?’ “ He’s paging through his high school yearbook: Leesburg, Fla., Class of 1962. A supporter had given it to him at an earlier stop. Leesburg is a small town not much more than a three-iron away from the I-95 route the bus is traveling. “There’s my girlfriend,” McBride says. “There’s a girl I dated in grade school.” He smiles. He points to his picture. “That’s me.” A pause. “That was 38 years ago,” he says. Then he holds the book up to the group. “See, I was governor of Boys State. So I’ve been elected governor once.” He laughs. The remark will be woven into the speech McBride gives later at the Night Swan in New Smyrna Beach. There, he continues his crusade on education, the environment, the elderly. He pokes fun at his weight and how he appears on television. He is honest enough to apologize to the crowd for recycling his material. “If I tell the same story twice, politicians do that,” he says. “You run out of stories.” Bill Peet, a local software developer, is sold. Peet says he and his wife both worked for Al Gore’s presidential campaign two years earlier. “We were disgusted. There’s big-time anger here.” But McBride, he says, comes across “exactly how Bill Clinton came across to me in 1992.” Peet hands McBride a check for his campaign. “Make it happen!” Peet says. McBride has 180 days now — days that will have to mirror this one — to do just that.

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