ORLANDO, Fla., April 12 (UPI) -- The race for Florida's 27 electoral votes in the 2004 presidential election is on.
It starts in Orlando this weekend with the opening of the state Democratic convention. The event is attracting five of about 10 potential candidates for the Democratic nomination.
The list starts with former Vice President Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 only to lose to President Bush when he lost Florida by a disputed razor-thin margin of 537 votes. That won Bush Florida's electoral votes -- 25 at the time -- and the election.
Also visiting this weekend is Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who says he won't run if Gore does. His Connecticut colleague in the Senate, Chris Dodd is also on the list for the Florida convention along with Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen John Kerry, D-Mass.
Florida ranks fourth behind California, New York and Texas in population and electoral votes. Since it is viewed as the only competitive state among the top four, it is considered the biggest prize of the election. California and New York are considered Democratic strongholds and Texas is the president's home state.
"Gore is obviously the 800-pound gorilla," said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. "Florida is a big deal. It's a big-deal state. Whoever is the nominee, you have to win Florida."
Biden ran for the nomination in 1988 and is considered as an outside possibility to run this time.
President Bush is the heavy favorite to capture a second term with his 80-plus percent approval rating, but Democrats say they are not daunted. They say the approval rating is primarily because of the war on terrorism and point out that Democrats won the only two gubernatorial races in 2001, in Virginia and New Jersey.
But in between are this fall's elections, expected to provide plenty of action at this weekend's meeting.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno is running against little-known Tampa lawyer Bill McBride for the right to run against Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush. She holds a 30-point lead over McBride, and the other three Democratic candidates are in single digits.
"The press is killing us, putting this out all over the country that it's a foregone conclusion Janet Reno will win the primary," said Hillsborough County Democratic Chairman Mike Scionti, a McBride activist.
Reno also trails Jeb Bush badly, and the Democratic leadership has indicated McBride has a better chance in November because of Reno's liberal reputation and McBride's potential for picking up more centrist votes.
Reno and McBride planned simultaneous receptions Friday night to woo support, and the effort will continue through the weekend, which will not include the usual straw vote.
"What we need to show as Democrats is that the party is united against Jeb Bush, and we've got the energy and the momentum to beat him," said Mo Elleithee, Reno's campaign manager.