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Storms Toss Bush Florida Strategy

Times Staff Writer

In deference to hurricane recovery efforts, President Bush canceled two campaign appearances in Florida scheduled for today -- but that doesn’t mean his team believes that disaster relief is a politics-free zone.

For two straight days this week, Bush took time away from debate preparations to tend to victims and talk up the more than $12 billion he has requested for Florida and other states affected by four hurricanes in six weeks.

And White House strategists said they were quickly rewriting the Republican campaign plan in this crucial battleground state to compensate for the fact that Floridians have been far more focused on recovery efforts than on TV ads and the candidates.

“The federal government is working closely with state and local authorities to help people recover,” Bush said Thursday during a visit to Martin County, on the east coast.

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“I urge the Congress to pass my supplemental request quickly so the people of Florida can get the help they need.”

Several recent polls suggest that Bush has a slight edge in the state, but aides to both the president and the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, say the chaos in storm-ravaged communities from the Panhandle to South Florida makes it hard to know for sure.

“We’re flying sort of blind,” Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, told Florida reporters this week, according to the Miami Herald. “Since Aug. 13, we’ve not been able to get consistent polling.”

Rove did not elaborate, but a Bush campaign official said Thursday that, in the aftermath of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, the campaign is focusing more on ground-level contact with voters.

“You don’t know what voters are watching ads, what voters are getting mail, and there aren’t accurate polls,” the official said. “Reaching voters on a one-to-one basis becomes even more crucial.”

The shift in strategy reflects how politics has changed in Florida since Charley struck on Aug. 13, creating confusion in a large, complex state that decided the 2000 race by just 537 votes and where both campaigns have focused precious resources and time.

With Jeanne’s departure last week, strategists on both sides hope things can return to normal -- starting with Thursday’s debate.

Kerry is campaigning today and Saturday in Florida and used his opening remarks Thursday night to tell residents there, “We admire your pluck and perseverance.”

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Democrats say that Bush is exploiting the disaster, noting that he visited the state after each hurricane, promising money and using his trips for photo opportunities.

Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a Miami Democrat who heads Kerry’s campaign in Florida, said Bush’s decision to cancel his events today was a ploy to focus attention on his role in the recovery.

“The president is going to ride backs of the misery of Floridians as long as he can,” Meek said. “He wants to make it seem like others are not as sensitive as he is. He doesn’t want to go back to the campaign because staying in the recovery mode helps him more.”

White House officials insist that the money and the president’s appearances are not related to politics. Under pointed questions this week from reporters, Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the money and attention for Florida reflect the need.

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But there were plenty of signs that Bush strategists were keeping an eye on the politics as well.

Campaign Chairman Marc Racicot, for instance, sent an e-mail to supporters, with a Bush-Cheney ’04 banner on top, asking for donations to the Red Cross for relief efforts -- an appeal similar to one Bush offered during his appearance Thursday.

“This time we’re asking our volunteers and supporters, those who have been so helpful to the president, to help our friends and neighbors around the country who have been battered by a series of weather events,” the e-mail said.

And Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman, in a rare departure from the campaign’s talking points, jokingly suggested that Florida might be benefiting from the allure of its 27 electoral votes.

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Leaving a dinner with senior staff Wednesday night at the Delano, an upscale Miami Beach Art Deco hotel, Mehlman greeted several reporters sitting nearby. One mentioned the $12-billion allotment for recovery.

“Hey,” Mehlman quipped, “it’s great to be a target state in an election year.”


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