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Iraq War Remains Top Issue in Florida House Race

October 20, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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RADIO ANNOUNCER: 97.9, WRMF…

RADIO ANNOUNCER: It’s going to be a busy hour here before 9:00. We’re going to be…

MARGARET WARNER: In Palm Beach, Florida, these days, the Mark Foley scandal permeates not just the news, but drive-time rock radio programs like “The Jennifer and Danny Show” and its parody commercials.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Sitting at my computer all day really dries out my skin.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Oil of Foley…

RADIO ANNOUNCER: My fingers are dry and cracked from all the instant messages and e-mails.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Oil of Foley…

MARGARET WARNER: But Republicans here aren’t laughing. They’re worried the fallout from Foley and other GOP ethic scandals may cost them the disgraced former Florida lawmaker’s seat and that of his congressional next-door neighbor, Clay Shaw.

REP. CLAY SHAW (R), Florida: How are you? Good to see you.

MARGARET WARNER: Shaw came to Congress in the 1980 Reagan landslide. If he wins again, he could become chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, but right now the 67-year-old Shaw, like many of his Republican colleagues, finds himself in the fight of his political life. And he knows it.

REP. CLAY SHAW: The problem that the Foley matter has brought about is that it’s taken the good work that we’ve done, the accomplishments that we’ve done, the good news in the economy and a lot of the progress that we’ve made in Iraq. It takes that off the front page so that it covers it up.

RON KLEIN, Democratic House Candidate: Hi, I’m State Senator Ron Klein.

MARGARET WARNER: Breathing down Shaw’s neck is energetic, well-funded Democratic State Senator Ron Klein. He doesn’t need to mention the Foley scandal in speeches or campaign ads. But when asked, he says it’s a symbol of the failed GOP leadership in Washington.

RON KLEIN: Well, both parties may have bad apples, but the current scandals are mostly Republican scandals. Mr. Shaw is part of the leadership. He likes to talk about that all the time. He has to bear responsibility for the fact that Republican leadership has, in this case, may have been involved in a cover-up.

MARGARET WARNER: The two men are battling over one of the most hotly contested districts in Florida, the beautiful, coastal 22nd. This mainly white, well-off district running along the water from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale was carefully redrawn by the Republican state legislature five years ago to protect Congressman Shaw.

So Republicans do outnumber Democrats, but these Republicans tend to be moderate. There are plenty of independents, and John Kerry beat George Bush here in 2004. All that made Clay Shaw a tempting target for Democrats this year.

Focus on Iraq

Ron Klein
Democratic House Candidate
[J]ust to stay the course in Iraq is not a plan. Stay the course is not a plan, and that's Mr. Shaw's plan.

RON KLEIN: Thank you. Appreciate it, very nice to meet you. Thank you. Good luck in school.

MARGARET WARNER: The 49-year-old Klein jumped into the race 20 months ago, and he's been hard at it ever since. He seeks out voters in neighborhoods where many voted for Shaw before, probing for dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, the president, and their congressman.

RON KLEIN: The fight against terrorism is not only in Baghdad; it's in about 60 countries now.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Cane, who heads the Florida Voter Polling Group, says the Iraq war and President Bush's handling of it is the overriding issue for this district's voters.

JIM KANE, Florida Voter Polling Group: There seems to be no end in sight in their mind, and they seem to believe that it's really been mismanaged, and needlessly so. And that's the foundation for all the attitudes that we see in this district.

NARRATOR, Ron Klein Advertisement: Three and a half years, over $300 billion spent, thousands of American troops lost. And still Clay Shaw refuses to question George Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: In ad after ad, Klein ties Shaw to what he calls a failed policy in Iraq.

NARRATOR, Ron Klein Advertisement: It's time for a change. This time, let's elect a congressman who will lead, not follow.

RON KLEIN: Mr. Shaw's problem is that he continues to follow the president on this view that all the terrorists are in Iraq. He keeps saying, "If we don't fight them in Baghdad, we're going to fight them in Boston." That is incredibly naive for somebody who claims to have all this experience. And just to stay the course in Iraq is not a plan. Stay the course is not a plan, and that's Mr. Shaw's plan.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Shaw is not backing off his support for the war or the president's policy.

Your opponent has said -- Ron Klein has said you've just been a rubber stamp for the president on the war. What do you say to that?

REP. CLAY SHAW: Well, I don't know where he's coming from. He hasn't met with the generals; he hasn't been to Iraq; he certainly hasn't met with the president; he hasn't been in any top secret meetings.

I'm not a rubber stamp for the president, but I do support our troops. And I support them very, very strongly.

MARGARET WARNER: Shaw is punching back in ads, too.

AD SPOKESMAN, Clay Shaw Advertisement: Ron Klein is using our troops' sacrifice for his own political gain. Mr. Klein, that's wrong. Our congressman, Clay Shaw, voted for better equipment, modern weapons, and a pay raise for our troops. How do I know? I got that raise. I'm a Marine. I was there.

Representing the Jewish community

Paul Garber
Clay Shaw supporter
I've decided to support Clay Shaw. I am Republican, fairly conservative. He's been represented us, I thought, well. I am for the war, so that's one of the things that would be an asset for me.

MARGARET WARNER: A major target in this clash over Iraq are the 20 percent to 25 percent of district voters who are Jewish. Many supported the war to start with, and Shaw has been a strong vote for Israel in Congress.

So though Klein is Jewish, he can't count on automatically sweeping the Jewish vote, certainly not in upscale gated communities like Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton.

PAUL GARBER, Florida Resident: There are a lot of closet Republicans here.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired marketing manager Paul Garber says many retired Jewish businesspeople here are conservatives like him.

PAUL GARBER: Yes, I've decided to support Clay Shaw. I am Republican, fairly conservative. He's been represented us, I thought, well. I am for the war, so that's one of the things that would be an asset for me.

MARGARET WARNER: But club resident Eleanor Weisman says the war has changed her mind about Congressman Shaw.

ELEANOR WEISMAN, Florida Resident: I have voted for Clay Shaw before. I have been a registered Republican all my life, my voting days. I cannot vote for a Republican now. What they're doing in this administration is very, very sad, and I have to vote against Clay Shaw.

MARGARET WARNER: Boca Raton attorney Andrew Robins, former president of the South Palm Beach County Jewish Federation, says unease with the president's foreign policies as a whole is making some Jewish voters rethink their support for him and for Shaw.

ANDREW ROBINS, Florida Resident: I think that American Jews and South Florida Jews, just like the American community in general, are increasingly asking questions about how it is we got into Iraq. And even if you're a supporter of Israel, can a war in Iraq and in Afghanistan and all of the things that are going on with Iran be helpful, in terms of bringing peace and stability to the state of Israel?

RON KLEIN: Let's talk about Medicare.

A new vs. old guard

Susan Muntz
Independent voter
When somebody's been re-elected a number of times, you start to wonder, "Are they getting complacent, or are they really fighting for the people they're representing, or have they just gotten comfortable there?"

MARGARET WARNER: On the stump and in ads, the candidates are also raising issues that matter to the district's many seniors, like the Medicare prescription drug plan.

RALLY SPOKESMAN: Our congressman, E. Clay Shaw, Jr....

MARGARET WARNER: But pollster Kane says the more notable difference between the two men is stylistic, the polished powerful incumbent versus the scrappy "time for change" outsider.

JIM KANE: The difference is really in their personalities and how they see things. Clay is very practical, very statesmanlike, very comfortable in his own environment. He prefers going to structured events, events in which he's comfortable in.

Klein is more of a populist-type candidate. He is somebody that enjoys going out and meeting people in crowds, kissing babies, shaking hands. He likes to mix it with everyday people out in the district.

MARGARET WARNER: The differences were apparent last weekend. Shaw seemed in his element touring a river restoration project in Jupiter. There wasn't an undecided voter in sight, but he listened patiently as local officials asked him to help get federal dollars to expand the preserve.

JEFF ATWATER (D), Florida State Senator: He's known as the man who saved the Everglades.

MARGARET WARNER: Republican State Senator Jeff Atwater says Shaw's seniority, his history of delivering for his district, is his biggest asset.

JEFF ATWATER: Independents and Democrats, Republicans alike, they embrace this man. They are grateful for this man's contribution. On Election Day, I have no doubt they're going to ask him to serve yet again.

MARGARET WARNER: But at a community park picnic in Fort Lauderdale, as Shaw made the rounds, some residents who'd voted for him before seemed to be looking for more. Independents Susan and Brews Muntz (ph) said Shaw hadn't shown up at their recent community candidates' night, and so they wanted to talk to him at the picnic about the war. But Shaw didn't talk substance as he worked the crowd.

REP. CLAY SHAW: You know, they say we're a bunch of clowns.

MARGARET WARNER: And he left after 35 minutes.

RON KLEIN: And I don't see why government should operate any differently than your business or your household.

MARGARET WARNER: Klein stayed an hour and a half, peppering anyone and every one with his questions and his views, including the Muntzs.

FLORIDA RESIDENT: How do you feel about the war in Iraq? Should we continue with this or...

RON KLEIN: Well, I don't think we should continue with the way it's going. This is...

MARGARET WARNER: They said afterwards they weren't sure Klein knew how to end the war, but they were disappointed not to hear from Shaw at all.

FLORIDA RESIDENT: That's one reason for coming here to this picnic today. I want to know more of what he's done.

SUSAN MUNTZ, Florida Resident: When somebody's been re-elected a number of times, you start to wonder, "Are they getting complacent, or are they really fighting for the people they're representing, or have they just gotten comfortable there?" Because it does seem to be still an old boy's club.

Down to the wire

Rep. Clay Shaw
R-Fl.
Ron, you want a new generation. I want to ask you what's wrong with our generation. All you offer is criticism. You have constantly been running against the president... The president is not running. I am running.

MARGARET WARNER: In a race too close to call, turnout will be key. Florida Republicans have a formidable operation. But it's unclear if the small but crucial Christian conservative community, which usually delivers for Shaw on Election Day, is up for this one.

Retired FBI supervisor Gary Favitta at a Christian Family Coalition dinner with his wife, said the Foley scandal is just the latest downer for them.

GARY FAVITTA, Florida Resident: I mean, you know, we voted the Republican party in. They ran on a certain agenda. They've been in control now, you know, for almost 14 years. And quite frankly, some of the direction that they said they would take us -- and they don't really act the way they were supposed to and to do the things that they say they're going to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Local Democrats, on the other hand, seem turned on. Retirees Ed and Kitty Ruff of Delray Beach heard Klein speak at a local library.

So how enthusiastic are you about the upcoming election?

ED RUFF, Florida Resident: I have such high hopes. I stop taking pills because I have high hopes.

MARGARET WARNER: And you?

KITTY RUFF, Florida Resident: Oh, yes, I'm looking forward to the Democrats having an absolute landslide. Eddie and I share the same enthusiasm.

MARGARET WARNER: So there are sure to be many more joint appearances, like this one Sunday night at the Leisureville Retirement Community in Boca Raton.

RON KLEIN: Mr. Shaw has been a long-time congressman. I appreciate his service to the country, as do all of us. But sometimes it's time for a change. It's time to get some new perspectives, some new energy, some new ideas. It's time for a new generation of people to work together.

REP. CLAY SHAW: Ron, you want a new generation. I want to ask you what's wrong with our generation. All you offer is criticism. You have constantly been running against the president, Ron. I'm sorry. You're two years too late. The president is not running. I am running.

MARGARET WARNER: Voters here have less than three weeks to decide whether this race is about these candidates or President Bush.