By WILLIAM MARCH/ of The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA – Visiting Tampa, the presidential candidate criticizes Jeb Bush’s plan to end affirmative action
Dragging Florida politics into the presidential race, Bill Bradley on Monday used his first Tampa Bay area appearance to slam Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to end affirmative action programs.
“I have come to Florida today to stand with those in opposition to Gov. Bush’s position on affirmative action,” Bradley told a crowd of about 700 in an Ybor City auditorium.
“Giving people opportunity is not a preference or a quota. … And I will not yield to anyone who believes affirmative action is no longer necessary.”
A former New Jersey senator seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Bradley also made impassioned, idealistic pleas for health care, aid to the poor and gun control.
“We have to be willing to think big, dream big things,” he said, promising to reduce the number of children in poverty by 4 million a year, and to seek health care legislation that would cover all children in America.
Bradley’s appearance began what could turn into an intense fight with Vice President Al Gore for the hearts of Florida Democrats, leading up to the state’s March 14 primary.
Gore will hold a town hall meeting in Ybor City tonight.
Seeking to steal some of Bradley’s thunder, Gore’s Florida chairman, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, on Monday criticized Bradley’s health care proposals during a news conference.
Bradley criticized Bush, whose brother, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is a Republican presidential candidate, for “lack of vision and leadership” and repeated accusations by blacks and other Democrats in the state Legislature that Bush proposed his One Florida plan without adequately consulting those most affected.
“No law was passed, no court decision rendered … no public hearing was even held,” Bradley said.
Butterworth’s news conference brought to Florida the bitter argument over health care that Gore and Bradley have played out in New Hampshire and in their debates.
Bradley’s proposal would replace the government-run Medicaid plan with subsidies allowing low-income people to buy private health insurance, or buy into the health plan provided for federal employees and members of Congress.
Butterworth repeated many of Gore’s past criticisms: that the plan would cost $1 trillion, not the $65 billion Bradley estimates; that Gore’s plan would provide better prescription drug coverage for the elderly.
Monday’s speech was a good example of the increasingly tough tactics between the Bradley and Gore.
Besides Butterworth’s appearance, Gore staff members shot faxes to reporters immediately after Bradley’s speech. The faxes sought to undercut its main point, accusing Bradley of a past anti-affirmative action vote and underlining Gore’s own pro-affirmative action record.
Bradley’s staff, meanwhile, showered reporters with deadline faxes and phone calls calling Butterworth’s criticisms “a litany of distortion” and accusing Gore, in turn, of having backed an effort to repeal a race preference program.
Bradley trails Gore substantially in polls in Florida. A recent Florida Voter poll showed Gore ahead 61 percent to 27 percent.
But Bradley hopes the state’s Northern transplants, who may have known him as a senator from New Jersey and pro basketball player with the New York Knicks, will be receptive to his message.
On March 7 that day, Bradley hopes to win New York and do well in several smaller Northeastern states. But in California, where the nation’s biggest cache of convention delegates is at stake, he trails Gore even more in polls than in Florida.
That could make the Southern states that vote a week later … including Florida, the nation’s fourth-largest state … a crucial battlefield.
Gore isn’t taking any chances.
He will have a rally before a friendly crowd of retirees in Pembroke Pines today. His wife, Tipper, will be in Miami on Friday and Key West on Saturday.
In Bradley’s speech Monday, he appealed to the deepest dreams of the most committed Democrats, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and author Toni Morrison before taking questions from the crowd.
He said, in Morrison’s words, that the time must come “when race exists, but it doesn’t matter.”
Bradley will need as much black support as he can find against Gore, who has cultivated black voters for more than two decades as a U.S. representative and senator from Tennessee and as vice president. Most analysts see Gore as clearly ahead among black voters, who have traditionally been the strongest supporters of President Clinton.
Despite Bradley’s emphasis on race relations during his campaign, numbers of black people in the crowd who heard him Monday weren’t large, except for invitees and a youth group.
William March covers politics and can be reached at (813) 259-7761.