ORLANDO, Fla. – Only a few months ago, political novice Bill McBride trailed Janet Reno by a seemingly insurmountable margin in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.
But now, a week before the primary, McBride may be about to pull off a huge political upset and set the stage for a fall showdown with Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
"We've come an awfully long way in a short period of time," the 57-year-old Tampa lawyer said Tuesday. "I sense we've got momentum and the wind is at my back."
Polls released Sunday showed McBride and the former Clinton administration attorney general running neck and neck. State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami is running third with about 10 percent of the vote.
For her part, Reno said she was undeterred, vowing to energize the elderly and black voters who make up a significant portion of the primary vote.
"I think it is going to be a good race and I'm looking forward to victory on Tuesday," she said.
McBride has benefited from the early backing of the state teachers union, an effective media strategy and a range of endorsements from elected officials and newspapers.
"They're highly organized and they've run a good campaign," said Doug Head, chairman of the Orange County Democrats. "They're effectively talking to multiple constituencies."
The father of two children in public schools, McBride has criticized Bush's education agenda at every turn while offering a $1 billion plan to increase funding for public schools. The teachers union has helped fund the bulk of McBride's nearly $4 million advertising blitz.
He has used a media strategy highlighting his Florida roots. Ads detail how he dropped out of law school to volunteer for Vietnam with the Marines.
McBride grew up in a working poor family in the small, central Florida town of Leesburg, where he was president of his senior class and voted Mr. Leesburg High.
Standing a bulky 6-foot-3, McBride has a commanding presence and charms prospective voters with a folksy demeanor and perpetual half-smile. He is good at remembering names.
"He's not afraid to get out there and listen to people," said Beverly Burgess, an Orlando supporter.
The state GOP has taken an active role in the primary, running TV ads questioning McBride's campaign finance practices and his tenure as managing partner at his law firm. Democratic activists say the GOP ads have backfired.
"Nothing has done more to raise Bill's name ID than to put his name on TV every five minutes for several weeks," said state Rep. Bob Henriquez, a Tampa Democrat who has backed McBride.
Bush has countered that state voters should know more about McBride's record.
"Until others begin to scrutinize this guy's record I feel an obligation to point out there may some deficiencies there worthy of review," the governor said Tuesday.
Polls in mid-June showed Reno leading by more than 20 points. But her support has slipped as McBride built name recognition.
"The heart of the matter is that fame beats anonymity any time and McBride isn't anonymous anymore," said David Niven, a Florida Atlantic University political scientist.
Black voters were once considered a group solidly in the camps of Reno and Jones, who is black. But Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., one of Florida's best-known black politicians, threw her support behind McBride on Tuesday.
"I know he can win and it's all about winning," Brown said.
McBride has touted himself as the best Democrat to face Bush in the fall. He appears to have the potential to raise significant contributions -- his chief fund-raiser is Orlando businessman Richard Swann, the father-in-law of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.