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McBride declares victory; Reno asks review

McBride: Challenges Bush to debate on flatbed truck traveling around the state.  

MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Political newcomer Bill McBride declared victory Thursday in the Democratic race for governor.

But his chief rival, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, refused to concede defeat, asking elections officials for a review of vote totals in Miami-Dade County.

The latest figures from the state Elections Division showed McBride, a Tampa attorney, beating Reno by less than 8,200 votes out of more than 1.35 million cast in Tuesday's problem-plagued primary, or about six-tenths of 1 percent.

The margin, while narrow, was not close enough to trigger an automatic statewide recount, and the state canvassing board certified McBride as the winner Thursday afternoon.

Under state law, Reno was not entitled to an automatic statewide recount unless the margin was less than one-half of 1 percent.

Two years after election problems in Florida drew international attention and withering criticism, Tuesday's election was again plagued by delayed poll openings and technical glitches, particularly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Voting was extended for two hours statewide because of the problems.

Reno's campaign Thursday asked elections officials in Miami-Dade County, a Reno stronghold, to review the accuracy of vote totals reported in 81 precincts -- including an examination of new touch-screen electronic voting equipment.

"The right to vote is one of the most precious possessions we have," she said at an evening news conference. "I think the first thing we must do is get the votes counted. And we're in the process of watching that happen in Dade County."

In-Depth: The Race for Governor 

Noting that she had to wait more than an hour to case her own vote Tuesday because of problems with voting equipment, she said "that is a very sobering experience for somebody who is used to a democracy where when you go to vote, voting polls are open."

Reno's campaign manager, Mo Elleithee, said the campaign also is looking at possible problems elsewhere, including Broward County, another Reno stronghold, where one precinct reported no voters casting ballots at all.

"Every vote must be counted," he said. "We are being very careful in how we step. We want to make sure simply that we know how the votes were cast."

Reno reaches out to McBride

With less than eight weeks to go before the general election, Reno said she does not think her refusal to concede would divide the Democratic Party or help the GOP nominee, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

"I think the Democratic Party is known as the party of the people -- the party that wants its people's votes to be counted," she said.

"I think the party will be united as never before because the people will understand that the Democratic Party cares about the electoral process."

Reno would not comment on what steps the campaign might take beyond its request to review voting in Miami-Dade County, although she said, "As soon as the votes get counted, if it's appropriate for me to concede as the runner-up, I'll be happy to do so."

She said it would not be "practical" to have a new election.

Reno said she had spoken to McBride earlier in the day and offered to campaign jointly with him against Bush until the election impasse is resolved. She said McBride expressed to her that "he wants to move on to his campaign."

A short time later, McBride went before cheering supporters in Tampa to accept the canvassing board's decision and declare victory.

While not directly addressing Reno's concerns about the election process, he called for Democrats to unify for the coming battle with Bush.

"What we need to do now is to unite and get together with the real business at hand," McBride said. "Now is the time to bring everybody together."

McBridge challenges Bush to debate

Under Florida's new election laws -- revamped after the 2000 balloting fiasco that left the outcome of the presidential election hanging for weeks -- counties had only until noon Thursday to report results to the state canvassing board.

"The recourse for [Reno], should she choose to go that way, is the courts," said Secretary of State Jim Smith.

Smith refused to speculate about what state elections officials might do if local elections officials in Miami-Dade, Broward or elsewhere decide to recount votes and submit new totals. "We will deal with it then," he said.

Reno's campaign treasurer, Alan Greer, said state officials must reconsider the certification if the vote totals change.

"They do not have the power to anoint someone as a candidate if the vote totals turn out to be different than they are acting on," he said.

Reno: The Democratic Party
Reno: The Democratic Party "wants its people's votes to be counted."  

Reno, much better known than McBride at the beginning of the campaign, led throughout most of the race for the Democratic nomination. But he surged in the final weeks of the campaign to pull off the apparent upset.

In his victory speech, McBride turned his fire on Bush, asked that the governor travel around the state with him on the back of a flatbed truck "from Pensacola to Key West" debating issues and answering voters' questions.

"I'm serious about it. Get your jeans on," McBride said.

With less than eight weeks until the general election, polls show Bush well ahead of both Reno and McBride, although some state Democrats believe McBride would be a stronger candidate against Bush than Reno.

Bush wants answers and fixes

After the 2000 race, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature overhauled the state's election laws and required counties using the punch-card systems, including Miami-Dade and Broward, to replace them with new electronic machines.

But with Tuesday's problems keeping the outcome of the Democratic gubernatorial race hanging in the air, Republicans and Democrats have begun trading charges about just who is responsible.

Both Bush and Smith, whom the governor appointed secretary of state, have criticized local elections officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties for the problems.

On Thursday, the governor asked Smith to conduct a "fact-finding" investigation to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it before the November election.

"We put more money into the budgets to upgrade the machines and for training," he said. "The state has done its part. We responded to the 2000 election. And [what happened Tuesday] is unconscionable."

Smith, who said what happened Tuesday was an "embarrassment," vowed to work with local elections officials to prevent the problems from happening again.

"We will do everything within our power to help these people, any way we can," he said.

But Reno blasted Bush for not doing more to ensure Tuesday's election ran properly.

"Governor Bush abdicated. He said it's not his problem. But he is the chief executive officer of this state, and there are no laws more important in this state than election laws," Reno said.

"I think he had a responsibility to see that the processes were in place that could make this system work as it should work in a democracy."

The Justice Department said 17 monitors that were sent to Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county to observe Tuesday's primary for possible civil rights voting violations will remain in the state.

"The department is aware complaints have arisen [about polling machines]. We will take seriously all complaints that fall within our division," a Justice Department official told CNN.




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