MIAMI – Political newcomer Bill McBride claimed the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Thursday, but Janet Reno refused to concede, citing possible problems with the counting of ballots in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
McBride, a Tampa attorney seeking his first political office since college, said he had been notified by state election officials late Thursday that he had won Tuesday's primary. He had a lead of about 8,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, according to unofficial results released by the state Thursday.
McBride told supporters at a Tampa hotel that Republican Gov. Jeb Bush had done little to benefit the state during his four years in office and challenged him to debates throughout the state.
"Let's get a flatbed truck, go from city to city," McBride said. "You talk, then I'll talk ... but you can't do it unless you're willing to shoot straight with people."
McBride said he had spoken twice to Reno on Thursday, but never asked the former U.S. attorney general to concede.
"I called and congratulated her on her campaign. We were very cordial and nice," he said.
Reno said she would not yet concede because she has too many questions about the way the balloting was conducted in Miami-Dade, citing her own problems casting her ballot Tuesday where she had to wait for several minutes while machines were turned on.
"I think the Democratic Party is known as the party of the people, a party that wants its peoples' votes counted," she said. "We have experienced many questions about the electoral process. I think those questions must be answered."
According to unofficial state returns, McBride had 601,008 votes, or 44.5 percent, compared with Reno's 592,812 votes, or 43.9 percent. State Sen. Daryl Jones of Miami had 156,358 votes, or 11.6 percent.
McBride's unofficial victory margin was 8,196 votes, according to the state, while Reno needed a difference of 6,751 votes or less to qualify for an automatic machine recount. The campaign would need to cut McBride's margin by 1,445 votes to trigger the recount.
Reno's campaign attorney Alan Greer and campaign manager Mo Elleithee said they had questions about Miami-Dade's count in 81 precincts, saying thousands of votes could be affected in Reno's home turf.
On Thursday, Miami-Dade officials reviewed the vote totals from four precincts with apparently low turnout and found an additional 1,818 votes that had not been counted. The county did not say how many of those votes were for Reno. Those additional votes were not part of the unofficial total the county submitted to the state Thursday.
Miami-Dade officials also were re-examining the count in 10 precincts Thursday. County officials said the original counts showed the voter turnout in those precincts was less than 10 percent and they want to make sure that votes weren't missed. They were unable to say when will the re-examination will be completed, but under state law it must be done by Tuesday.
Reno's campaign has been saying since Wednesday the election could be tainted.
In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, polls opened late or ignored Bush's order to stay open an extra two hours, election workers had trouble starting new touchscreen voting machines, and many voters were confused about where to vote because of new precinct boundaries.
Reno's campaign also questioned results in an at least one Broward precinct and sent an e-mail to supporters statewide asking for examples of additional problems.
Greer said Reno has not decided whether to ask the state election board for a recount or go to court to overturn the results, but wants to take the necessary legal steps to keep her options open. Reno ruled out asking for a new election.
Robin Rorapaugh, McBride's campaign manager, said if Reno challenges McBride's victory, it would be a distraction but it wouldn't keep him from raising money he'll need to challenge Bush, who has raised $8.4 million. McBride has only about $1 million left after the primary, according to state records.
"It would distract from the Democratic message that Bush needs to be retired and I think it would be horribly divisive," Rorapaugh said.
Reno promised to support McBride if he is turns out to be the nominee.
If McBride is the nominee, he can forget his proposed flatbed truck tour with Bush, said Todd Harris, the governor's campaign spokesman.
"Unlike our opponent, whether it's Reno or McBride, the governor does not have the luxury of campaigning 24 hours a day. He also has to run the state," Harris said. "We'll probably have to take a pass on Mr. McBride's invitation for a joyride across the state, but don't let that stop him."
McBride, who once led Florida's largest law firm, was a political unknown before the campaign began, trailing Reno by 50 percentage points in January polling and by 25 points two months ago. His last political campaign was for student government president at the University of Florida, where he lost in a recount.
McBride used his contacts to raise more money than Reno -- $4.2 million to $2.6 million, according to the latest filings -- and used his monetary advantage to fill the airwaves with commercials and he crisscrossed the state picking up endorsements from some of the state's Democratic heavyweights.
Florida's 67 counties sent their vote totals to the state Division of Elections on Thursday, and they were given unofficial approval by the canvassing board, which had to decide whether to order a recount. They will be officially certified by the board Tuesday.
Bush and many voters blamed the problems on Miami-Dade's and Broward's elections chiefs, whose counties bought touchscreen voting machines to replace punchcard equipment. All counties were required to get rid of punchcard ballots.
The potential dispute reminded many of the 2000 presidential election. That year, George W. Bush's 537-vote victory was delayed by more than seven weeks as Al Gore demanded recounts and Democrats complained of uncounted punchcard ballots.
Florida enacted new laws and spent $32 million to reform its election system over the past two years in an attempt to solve the problems that made Florida the butt of jokes.
"It's a black eye for Miami-Dade County and Broward County," said Gov. Bush, the president's brother. "More resources, more training, more equipment, more state dollars, two years to do this, and it appears there were flaws in the implementation. Sixty-five counties got it right. Hillsborough County got it right, Pinellas County got it right, Duval County got it right. Miami and Broward need to work on this to get it right in November."
But Reno and her campaign blamed Bush for the voting problems, saying he had not done enough to assure the system was working properly.
"Gov. Bush abdicated," she said. "He said it was not his problem."
Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas ordered his inspector general Thursday to investigate the county's problems and report back by Sept. 20.
Reno's help will be solicited in the upcoming campaign if McBride is the nominee, Rorapaugh said. Florida's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, were considering coming home this weekend for a show of unity with the party nominee.
"I think Democrats across the state want to beat Jeb Bush," she said. "The primary was a very friendly affair. The candidates showed the utmost respect for each other."