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Primary Could Change Power Balance

September 11, 2002

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Another Florida election. Another race too close to call. And, once again, problems at the polls that left voters angry and confused.

This time it was the Democratic primary for governor, in which former Attorney General Janet Reno narrowly trailed lawyer Bill McBride. Early Wednesday, with 97 percent of precincts reporting, McBride had 596,472 votes, or 45 percent, compared with Reno’s 577,380 votes, or 43 percent. State Sen. Daryl Jones had 154,367 votes, or 12 percent.

Prospects for a quick resolution dimmed when several counties suspended counting overnight. They were to resume later Wednesday.

Elsewhere Tuesday, two-term U.S. Sen. Bob Smith was defeated by Rep. John Sununu in New Hampshire’s GOP primary. In North Carolina, Elizabeth Dole coasted to victory in the Republican Senate primary and Erskine Bowles won the Democratic nomination

In Florida, a new $32 million election system put in place after the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential debacle failed miserably in its debut Tuesday: Ballots jammed, machines malfunctioned and Gov. Jeb Bush _ who will face the winner of the primary in November _ ordered polls to stay open late.

``This is ridiculous,″ said Karl Williams, who voted in Miami’s Liberty City section before machines malfunctioned but returned in the afternoon to complain about the problems.

``They should have kept the old system. They’re trying to play the games again. They’re going to stop people from wanting to vote for anybody.″

Reno remained in striking distance as South Florida counties where she held a better than 2-to-1 margin still counted votes. Her once-commanding lead in polls had vanished by Tuesday as McBride, a political novice, gained momentum.

Hundreds of voters were turned away because of glitches with new touchscreen voting machines that led several polling places to delay opening or close temporarily in Miami-Dade County, a Reno stronghold.

The tight race already has stirred talk of potential challenges from Reno’s campaign.

``When that many people are turned away from the polls, it raises enough concerns that we’re going to have to take a good, hard look at the legitimacy of the election,″ Reno campaign manager Mo Elleithee said.

``We need to wait and see what the numbers look like and what the full impact of today’s voting irregularities are,″ he said.

Tuesday marked the busiest election day of the year.

Voters in 12 states determined fall lineups for six open governor’s offices, three of the most competitive Senate seats and a few House seats that could influence control of Congress and the shape of the remainder of President Bush’s administration.

With control of Congress split and held by a narrow margin, the November elections could tip the balance either way. While the Democrats have a one-seat Senate edge, the GOP holds the House, with 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two independents.

In New Hampshire, Smith’s defeat marked the first time in a decade that voters had ousted an elected senator in a primary; in 1992, Democrat Alan Dixon of Illinois lost to Carol Moseley-Braun.

Smith angered many of the party faithful when he bolted from the Republicans in 1999 for an ill-fated presidential run as an independent. He returned to the party months later.

``As Charles Dickens said, `It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,‴ Smith said in his concession. ``I was hoping it was going to be the best of times, instead of the worst of times tonight.″

Sununu, a three-term congressman, is the son of John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who was the first President Bush’s chief of staff. He will face leading Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the popular three-term governor, who ran unopposed.

The two began trading charges immediately.

``Jeanne Shaheen is a liberal Democrat. She supported Walter Mondale; she supported Al Gore,″ Sununu told cheering supporters.

In an interview, Shaheen said she and Sununu disagree on every issue.

``On health care, on education, on the environment, on the economy, on who should get the tax breaks _ big corporations or middle Americans _ he and I differ,″ she said.

In the race for Jesse Helms’ Senate seat in North Carolina, Dole, a Cabinet member in two Republican administrations, will face Bowles, chief of staff for former President Clinton.

Shortly after winning, Dole blamed the state’s economic problems _ particularly its troubled textile industry _ on the Democrats.

``For eight long years, Clinton administration policies undermined North Carolina’s economy, and years later we’re still struggling to overcome that,″ she told supporters.

Bowles wasted no time in criticizing his opponent.

``When North Carolina gets to know where Mrs. Dole stands on the issues _ and I hope some day she will tell us _ they will find out ... that Mrs. Dole is out of step with the citizens of North Carolina,″ he said.

In a third crucial Senate race for the fall, Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone and Republican Norm Coleman, mayor of St. Paul, easily won their primaries.

Primaries also were held in Arizona, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Georgia held runoffs.

The Florida voting problems seemed a rerun of the troubles the state faced in the last presidential election. Ballots were chewed up in the new touchscreen voting system and some polling stations opened late.

Problems were reported in at least 14 counties, including six of the seven sued after the 2000 vote. As problems mounted, Gov. Bush ordered polls statewide to stay open an additional two hours.

Reno had led McBride by 25 points two months ago, but her lead dwindled as she lost the support of prominent Democrats, many of whom saw McBride as a stronger candidate.

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