Bush, Kerry Rushing Headlong to the Finish

Times Staff Writer

In a feverish finale to an achingly close presidential campaign, President Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry and their running mates spread their message today across a divided nation.

The Republican incumbent set out before sun-up and his Democratic challenger headed from Florida to the Midwest battleground on a day that is expected to bring them and their running mates to at least 20 campaign events in at least 11 states, from Minnesota to Texas and Hawaii to Florida.

They were so closely tilling the same political soil that the Bush and Kerry motorcades came within yards of each other, as Bush was about to leave Milwaukee and Kerry was arriving.

Vice President Dick Cheney traveled through the night, and Sen. John Edwards planned to have the final say in Florida, the last candidate visit to the battleground that was disputed, but decisive, in the election four years ago.

But the epicenter of it all was the nation's heartland: The candidates were re-treading the oft-worked towns and cities of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota as they sought to bring every last voter to the polls in what is widely seen as a contest in which success in the final stage — the voter-turnout drive — could well be the determining factor

Bush, who spoke at his first rally just after dawn in Wilmington, Ohio, told reporters after he landed in Pittsburgh: "We're coming down the stretch. And I feel great." But he was embarked on a seven-stop day, the frenzied end to a reelection drive that even in its final hours was uncertain to end in victory. His travel called for a burst of energy unlike any he was required to demonstrate as he sought election four years ago.

By mid-morning, he was already headed to his third state, Wisconsin, seeking to hit as many swing states as possible in one day-a total of five, with two stops in Iowa.

He began the day with a powerful display of the perquisites of incumbency: He traveled by motorcade over sealed-off streets, by Marine Corps helicopter coming to rest while the theme song from the movie "Top Gun" blared at a rally, and by Air Force One.

"In a new term I will keep pro-growth, pro-small business, pro-farmer policies in place," Bush promised his supporters. "I will defend your deepest values and I will work every day to make sure your families are safe. You can count on me."

The president planned a final rally at 10 p.m. in Dallas. He was expected to vote early in the morning at the fire station in Crawford, Texas, near his ranch, and then head back to the White House. He also planned to make a final election-day stop in Columbus, Ohio to meet with campaign volunteers.

"It's get-out-the-vote time," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said this morning.

Curt Schilling, the Boston Red Sox pitching ace who drew controversy when he endorsed Bush in a television interview shortly after his team won the World Series last week and then failed to show up to introduce the president at a campaign event in Boston, made it to the Wilmington rally and planned to travel with Bush for part of the day.

In his last Florida stop of the campaign, Kerry spoke to approximately 150 supporters on the Orlando airport apron in front of his campaign plane.

"This is the moment of accountability for America," he said.

"All of the hopes and dreams of our country are on the line today," Kerry said, establishing an end-of-the-campaign bottom-line message for the final 24 hours of his quest. He spoke of the nation's job losses under the Bush presidency, of Floridians who have lost their health insurance, of the administration's tax cuts that have most benefited the wealthiest, and of what he presented as inadequate spending for education-each time pivoting from his criticism of Bush to his own prescriptions for healing the nation's ills.

And at the end of what his staff said was his 13th visit to the state since wrapping up Democratic presidential nomination in March, he declared: "I've been coming to Florida enough that my brother cam is thinking of running for governor," he said. His reference to Gov. Jeb Bush needed no explanation.

The airport stop came after Kerry attended an early-morning All Saints Day Mass at St. John Vianney Catholic Church. His stops in the hotly-contested central Florida community kicked off nearly 20 hours of campaigning today that would take him to Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.

The day's highlights include appearances with singers Stevie Wonder in Detroit, Jon Bon Jovi in Milwaukee, and Bruce Springsteen in Cleveland. On election day, Kerry is scheduled to campaign in La Crosse, Wis., before returning to Boston, his hometown.

Cheney made a 2,800-mile detour, literally an 11th-hour visit to Hawaii, for a rally shortly before midnight Sunday, and then headed back to the mainland where he planned to address rallies in Nevada.

His travels in the closing hours reflected the change mathematics of the presidential race, as the candidates seek the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

With the outcome so uncertain, the candidates are working frenetically for even the smallest prizes-and shifting politics and populations have made states that were once reliably in the camp of one party or the other (Nevada a solid Republican vote, and Hawaii historically Democratic) are suddenly this year courted in case they can be pried loose and their meager electoral votes become decisive.

The 63-year-old vice president headed to Hawaii after a late Sunday stop in New Mexico, itself a newly minted battleground state after it gave Al Gore a 486-vote victory in 2000.

Wearing an orange and yellow lei, he called out "Aloha" to the 10,000 people who showed up at a rally, the largest crowd he has attracted in the campaign.

"I am here for a very simple reason," he said. "Hawaii is a vital state in the election, and President Bush and I would be honored to have your vote."

"The people of Hawaii understand the importance of steady, principled leadership in the White House," he said. "That's why this state is moving our way. And on Tuesday, I have a feeling we're going to surprise a lot of people back on the mainland-we are going to carry the state of Hawaii.

If Bush wins there, it would be the first time a Republican had succeed in Hawaii since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection. The only other time the state supported a Republican presidential candidate was in 1972, when Richard M. Nixon was reelected.

Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Maura Reynolds traveling with Bush, Michael Finnegan with Kerry and Richard Simon with Cheney contributed to this story.

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