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Florida Becomes Bush’s Main Focus

Times Staff Writer

President Bush launched a campaign blitz in the state that narrowly gave him the 2000 election as a new poll showed him tied with Sen. John F. Kerry in Florida.

On Saturday, the president appealed for votes at two rallies in the Democratic stronghold of southeastern Florida and a third in Daytona Beach. He planned to travel again to the state Monday and Tuesday, and return often in the two weeks leading up to the election.

“We will be here frequently, covering the state like the morning dew,” Karl Rove, the president’s chief political advisor, said during a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Four new national polls released Saturday showed Bush ahead of the Massachusetts Democrat by slim margins. Among likely voters, the president was backed by 50% of those polled in two of the surveys and 48% in the others. Support for Kerry ranged from 47% to 44%.

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But at this point in the race, each side is more focused on a dwindling number of battleground states that should determine which candidate wins the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House. And the clear message from the Bush campaign was that the president’s reelection, like his election, might hinge on Florida and its 27 electoral votes.

The Kerry camp also views Florida as potentially crucial to the Democrat’s hopes. In a sign of that, Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, campaigned in the state this weekend. And Kerry will swing through Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa on Monday.

Democrats also are raining television commercials into key Florida markets, a Kerry aide said.

Although election day is more than two weeks away, voters in Florida can vote as early as Monday, and the president urged his supporters to give him a head start in the state.

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“Make sure you get people to the polls. Starting Monday, people can vote,” Bush told the crowd of several thousand people in a sports arena in Sunrise.

By urging people to vote early, the Bush campaign hopes to avoid losing voters who are unable to make it to the polls Nov. 2, Rove said.

“Don’t overlook discerning Democrats,” the president added.

One Democrat, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, gave his support to the president during the rally in Sunrise.

“My party nominated the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Naugle said. His words, which mimicked a statement by Kerry on the war in Iraq, drew an approving roar from the crowd.

“President Bush is the right man at the right place at the right time,” he added.

Florida is a bit of a mystery to pollsters, in part because voter turnout might be depressed in areas hit by the swarm of hurricanes that struck the state in August and September. But a series of new surveys has shown that the race appears to be a tossup. Some show a tie and others give Bush a slight edge.

A recent Washington Post poll conducted with the Spanish-language network Univision showed the two tied among likely voters, 48% to 48%.

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Like other recent surveys, the poll showed Bush leading among Latinos, but with less support than he enjoyed in 2000. Kerry has made gains among Cuban Americans, traditionally Republicans, amid criticism of the administration’s Cuba policies.

The Bush campaign’s polling shows that the president has a slight edge over Kerry in the state, but campaign officials said they thought the race would be decided by which side did the best job of turning out its supporters.

Rove conceded that the campaign was concerned that supporters of the president whose lives were disrupted during the recent hurricanes may not make it to the polls. “All four hurricanes made landfall in Republican counties,” he said.

The latest sign of the White House’s concern for its Latino base in Florida came Friday, when the campaign abruptly announced that Al Cardenas, a Cuban-born former state Republican Party chairman, would be a new co-chairman for Florida.

The president’s rhetoric was sharp Saturday, as he continued to challenge his opponent’s competence for the presidency.

In each speech, Bush noted that today was the one-year anniversary of Kerry’s vote against an $87-billion funding bill for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Deriding Kerry for his comment this year that he had voted for the bill before opposing it, Bush said: “It’s a case study into why his contradictions call into question his credibility and his ability to lead our nation.”

Kerry has noted that the version of the bill he supported was a Democratic alternative that would have rolled back some of Bush’s tax cuts to provide the $87 billion.

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Earlier Saturday, Bush used his radio address to boast that the U.S. economy had grown the fastest of any industrial nation’s over the last three years. He said Kerry would raise taxes, weaken the No Child Left Behind Act and oppose healthcare reforms.

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Times staff writer Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.


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