MIAMI – The 2002 governor's race was supposed to be payback time for Florida Democrats.
Since the end of the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, the party has cast its eyes on defeating Gov. Jeb Bush for his education program, his policy on affirmative action and the lingering bitterness over the state's role in sending President Bush, the governor's older brother, to the White House.
But in the waning days before the Sept. 10 primary, the Democratic field offers uncertainty on how to challenge a well-heeled incumbent enjoying above-average approval ratings, who is trying to become the first Republican to earn re-election since Reconstruction.
"I think it's going to be a very, very, very hard job for Democrats to beat Jeb Bush,'' said Charles Whitehead, a former state Democratic party chairman.
Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has been the front-runner throughout the race but continues to worry some party members because of polls showing high negative ratings tied to her record in the Clinton administration.
Some party officials have backed Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer and first-time candidate, who has outpaced Reno in fund-raising, picked up some key endorsements and begun to build name recognition.
State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami has touted his experience and offered a detailed priority list but remains a long shot at best.
"I think we've been put in a very difficult position in the state,'' said state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Tampa Democrat. "Because the scenario most Democrats understand is that we have a train wreck waiting to happen in the Democratic primary.''
In current Democratic jargon, a train wreck means nominating a candidate who has the backing of core party members but fails to muster support among independents and conservative Democrats critical to defeating Bush.
Reno and McBride trail Bush in head-to-head matchups by double digits. Reno has led McBride in polls throughout the summer by more than 20 points with Jones registering only in the single digits.
Bush also holds a sizable advantage in fund raising, with nearly $6 million in contributions and a state Republican Party war chest capable of spending more than $20 million.
McBride has about $2 million to use for a last-ditch advertising campaign in key Democratic regions. Reno had raised about $1.5 million through early August but is expected to have about $820,000 in the bank.
Reno has a strong South Florida base earned through five terms as state attorney in Miami-Dade County before becoming attorney general in 1993.
She frequently invokes her late mother, Jane Wood Reno, who built the family homestead near the Everglades that later withstood the ravages of Hurricane Andrew. The house offers the perfect metaphor for state government.
McBride, an ex-Marine endorsed by the state's largest teachers union, has proposed a $1.1 billion education plan funded partially by raising the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack and eliminating some tax credits and exemptions and shifting spending in other areas to schools.
Democrats have criticized Bush's recent handling of child welfare issues. The head of the state Department of Children & Families resigned after several botched cases by the agency, most notably the disappearance of a 5-year-old girl in state custody.
But Republicans remain confident that regardless of whom Democrats nominate, Bush has to be considered the favorite.
Todd Harris, a Bush campaign spokesman, said both McBride and Reno have "thrown everything but the kitchen sink'' at the governor but failed to sway voters with their ideas on education.