ANALYSTS say Reno would be formidable candidate in Florida governor election

Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MIAMI (AP) _ Former Attorney General Janet Reno is giving serious consideration to a run for governor next year, setting up a potentially high-profile race in a state where she was surrounded by controversy during the Elian Gonzalez saga.

Reno, 62, said in a telephone interview from her Miami-area home Friday that she will probably make a decision on her plans by the end of the year.

``I have to decide what can I do that would best serve the interest of Florida,'' Reno said. ``I want to talk about the vision I have of what the state should be. Maybe there are other people out there who could address that better than I can, but let's see.''

Reno, a Florida native, brings to the race name recognition and a resume that includes five terms as prosecutor in Miami-Dade County. But she also carries plenty of baggage, including the Elian case, the deadly siege in Waco, Texas, and her opposition to the death penalty.

But analysts say she would still be a formidable candidate in the Democratic primary and in the general election against Gov. Jeb Bush, if he seeks re-election.

``She would probably get a lot of (former President Clinton's) popularity,'' said Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the Florida Institute of Government, a public policy center at Florida State University. ``A lot of people want Bush out and are looking for a horse they can ride.''

Joe Garcia, a Democratic Party consultant, said Reno needs to make up her mind by next month if she is to mount a serious candidacy.

``I love her to death and think she's a tremendous candidate,'' he said. ``She has to declare her intentions now.''

David Johnson, the executive director of the Florida Republican Party, wouldn't comment specifically on a possible Reno candidacy, but said a large Democratic primary would benefit the GOP because it would drain the winning candidate of resources for the general election.

``Our thought process is pretty much this: 'Come get some,''' Johnson said.

Reno said she didn't know how much money she would have to raise to mount a viable campaign, but said it would be in the millions.

Bush, who took office in January 1999, has said he plans to announce next month whether he will seek re-election. He declined comment Friday on Reno's possible candidacy.

The governor and other Florida officials were in the spotlight during last fall's marathon presidential election battle. Bush's brother, George W. Bush, won the state's key 25 electoral votes and the White House when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount sought by Al Gore.

The first female attorney general in U.S. history, Reno was surrounded by controversy for virtually her entire tenure but stayed nearly eight years in office _ longer than any attorney general in the 20th century.

Reno's involvement in the tug-of-war over Elian was one of her many controversies. Many in Miami's Cuban-American community were furious when she used federal agents to remove the 6-year-old boy from his Miami relatives' home so he could return to Cuba with his father last year.

Reno acknowledged that her role in the Elian case and the deadly siege of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, could be issues in a campaign. But she said she stands by her actions in both cases, noting an investigation by former GOP Sen. John Danforth cleared her of any wrongdoing at Waco.

``He said I could not have walked away after four (federal) agents were killed and 16 were injured'' in the raid that preceded the siege, Reno said.

DeHaven-Smith said Reno would get few votes in Miami's Cuban community because of Elian, but state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said most Cubans wouldn't likely vote for his party's nominee anyway, whoever it is.

Reno has had Parkinson's disease since 1995, but she said it didn't affect her performance as attorney general and it wouldn't affect her performance as governor.

``It would make my hand shake, that's all,'' she said. She said she frequently kayaks and enjoys other outdoor activities without adverse effects.

Reno is personally opposed to the death penalty, but said she could carry it out if she were governor. As attorney general, Reno approved seeking the death penalty against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and others.

``If the death penalty was legally applied, I would seek it and sign the death warrant,'' she said.