Prelude to a Butt Whippin'

The GOP eyes a George W. Bush victory in traditionally Democratic Palm Beach County. Here's why.

Nothing can incite a crowd of Democrats like talk of the 2000 election. So that's immediately what West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel goes for in her fiery speech. She's warming up a crowd of a few thousand in front of the downtown library. Hiding behind a ficus hedge, waiting to be announced, is the presumed savior of the Democratic Party -- John Kerry, looking even more gaunt than he does on television. "In Palm Beach County, we take this election personally, don't we?" she asks, and the lunchtime crowd erupts. She tells of seeing voters actually weep over their butterfly ballots, and the throngs boo and hiss their disdain. Then, Frankel goes for the kicker. "But this November," she readies them, "we will redeem ourselves in the eyes of this country!"

Kerry emerges with his stump speech about George W. Bush's lies and flawed fiscal policy. It's a damn good speech really, and after he's done, hundreds line up along metal barricades to tell him so. Security guards announce to the masses that he'll be carrying his own pen for signatures, and as he scribbles on placards for his faithful, Kerry fields a question as to whether he'll win Palm Beach County this year. "If they count the votes, I will," he says rather unenthusiastically. Then he notices his words are being written down, so he elaborates. "Well, we hope so. I just need to compete hard and we will win. And I will work hard."

There's a reason for Kerry's rather tepid response. Palm Beach County is no longer a place Democratic candidates can assume will throw them money and support, as it has since liberal New Englanders helped found it a century ago. The local Democratic Party hierarchy is in a shambles, with accusations of a Republican mole. Long-time members who express their discontent have been sent into exile. And powerful south-county fundraisers are putting their dollars instead behind political clubs that operate as mini-fiefdoms. The party is almost broke, has organized few election-year rallies, and lacks any leaders ready to take charge.

What's worse, the party's disorganized leadership denies the problems, dismissing dissenters and refusing offers of help from those who used to run things. The party's treasurer, Scott Britton, explains it with a quote not from some Democratic strategist but from the man he seeks to bring down: "It's like George W. always says. Those who don't want to join us will be left behind, and those who want to help us, well, great." Britton, whose day job is as a court-appointed mediator, says there's no negotiating with the traitors. "I'm not going to mediate with people who all they want to do is complain."

Meanwhile, local Republicans see their chance, targeting minority and Jewish voters who were once so heavily Democratic that Republicans never bothered seeking converts among them. Democrats still make up 45 percent of the county's registered voters, compared to 32 percent for Republicans. But the GOP believes its efforts to register voters, assisted by agents from the national office, will bring new numbers to their ranks.

In addition, the Republican Party of Palm Beach County has raised more than a half-million dollars this year. Democrats have managed just over $10,000, with half of that coming from one donor. That's $56 for the Republicans for every dollar collected by the Democrats.

Republican leaders, headed by savvy Chairman Sid Dinerstein, see President Bush doing well this year in Palm Beach County. Some even predict he'll win outright. "Is it my goal that George W. Bush wins Palm Beach County? Absolutely," says Dinerstein, who's comfortably retired at 57 years old and treating his unpaid position as a full-time job. "Is it a long shot? Absolutely, but you can bet we have a game plan on how it can be done."

The Democratic Party has long been the party with little organization, and this year's presidential contest will be a test of its ability to come together, says Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the well-oiled Broward County branch. Ceasar, a lawyer in Plantation, has spent seven years as the party's Broward chairman, giving it stability like no other county in Florida. "We're in pretty good shape statewide, and we have a lot of potential," Ceasar says tentatively. "The real question will be whether we have the ability to come together for this presidential election."

With Palm Beach's infamous role in the 2000 election, a good showing by Bush here would likely get national attention on election night and perhaps would be an indication that voters aren't all that upset about the whole Supreme Court-stole-the-election thing. Along with Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Palm Beach has always been the Democrats' answer to the heavily Republican northern and central parts of the state. A good showing here would give Bush momentum toward Florida's 27 electoral votes, which is a hefty 10 percent of what he needs for reelection. But more important, this year's vote will signal whether there's been a change in a county that has always been the Democratic Party's citadel, a place where politicians come to fill their pockets.

In the end, just how important is a well-planned local campaign in a presidential election? If it counts for anything in Palm Beach, it appears that Bush has at least a shot at carrying the county.

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