Florida Race a Test for 2004

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush suddenly finds his re-election at risk from a relatively unknown Democratic rival, sending big brother President George W. Bush to prop up his campaign this week.

"I know his heart, I know his strength and conviction and I know his vision," the president said at a Thursday night fund-raiser that was to raise $1 million for brother and party.

Bush's re-election is one of the most watched and expensive races in the country.

"I hope that you will vote for me. I honestly need your vote.  This is going to be a close election, but I believe I will prevail," Gov. Bush said.

But Democrats think they may have a winner with insurgent underdog Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer and low key political newcomer. The latest polls show a wide-open race, with McBride pulling into a statistical dead heat.

McBride has polls confirming a toss-up, but the Bush camp says their polls show them still leading.

But the little known McBride should not be discounted.  He scored a come-from-behind upset for the Democratic nomination over former Attorney General Janet Reno, and Republicans know that Florida Democrats could hardly be more motivated.

After Florida's 2000 presidential election recount fiasco, Democrats vowed to oust Gov. Bush, not only to avenge former Vice President Al Gore's defeat but also to put a Democratic governor in place to work against President Bush's re-election bid in 2004.

Florida has been inundated in the closing weeks of the election from national party activists and personalities who have flown in from all over the country to support their respective candidates.

McBride has even stepped out of the state to help himself, stealing away Friday to New York City to line up more support.

But for Floridians, the issues, not the players, may decide the race. Among the top concerns are public school class sizes and standardized testing. Bush has proposed reforms in these areas, while McBride has blasted Bush's record to date.

"Our public schools in Florida have lost ground to every other state for four years in a row. If you've seen that, we now rank in Florida, 49th in education and graduation rates, 50th in school sizes, 44th in class sizes and our teachers are paid well below the national average," he said.

Bush defends his education record and is now going after McBride for appearing on a radio show in which African-American host Rev. Victor Curry called the Bush administration "a Godless wicked regime ... on a neo-Nazi, right-wing mission against the American people."

"Mr. McBride has told the people of the state that he should be measured by the people he associates with.  He should not only just say I don't agree with what [Curry] said, he should renounce it, and he should ask for an apology for the president of the United States," the governor responded.

There is no indication from the McBride camp that he plans to make a statement on Curry's remarks and were he to do so, it would be a very delicate matter. McBride is aggressively courting the African-American vote and it could get difficult if he were to get into a public spat with an influential radio talk-show host.

Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.