Jeb Bush announced that he would run for re-election in June 2001 after first being elected in 1998. Bush was unopposed for the GOP nomination, and spent the summer amassing a war chest of over $5.6 million towards his re-election campaign.
Reno led throughout much of the campaign for the Democratic nomination, boasting name recognition and employing a grassroots strategy. In early June, she led McBride in the polls by a margin of 53%-25%, but trailed in a hypothetical head-to-head against Bush. Reno's primary campaign was dubbed the "Little red pickup truck tour," so-named because she toured the state in her 1999 Ford Ranger. Over the summer, her lead dwindled. McBride, backed by big money donors, was able to exploit Reno's paltry war chest, and sometime aloof campaign. Reno was also panned by many Democratic leaders for her connections to the Clinton Administration, and her handling of the both the Waco siege and the Elián González affair. In the final few weeks, McBride narrowed the gap to a dead heat going into the September 10 primary. McBride won the nomination by less than 4,800 votes.
Reno disputed the results after the primary was marred by problems. Several areas had technical glitches and delayed openings of the poll especially in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, both of which Reno performed strongly in. As a result of the problems, Governor Bush kept the polls open for two additional hours.
McBride's campaign focused on the importance of public education, supporting policies such as teacher pay rises and less emphasis on standardized tests. McBride was helped towards the end of the campaign by visits from national Democratic figures such as Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson. Though McBride himself did not make the topic an issue of his campaign, nationwide Democrats saw the race as an opportunity to avenge Al Gore's controversial loss in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and the subsequent recount. Likewise Republicans saw this race a preview of 2004.
The two main candidates faced each other in two debates on 27 September and 22 October in the most expensive Florida gubernatorial election yet. Polls towards the end of the campaign showed Bush with a lead over McBride.Department of Justice observers were stationed at some of the polls, but unlike the problems during the 2000 presidential election and the Democratic primary, voting went smoothly.
At the same time as the election an initiative was passed to limit class sizes. This had been opposed by Bush due to the cost of implementing it, but had been supported by McBride.