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Bush swings across Central Florida

The president gets the crowd and cars roaring in Daytona, then enjoys a Tampa institution's steak dinner. Expect traffic snarls today as he visits a local business.

Published February 16, 2004

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
President George W. Bush was greeted by Candido Corona, 47, of Wesley Chapel, a volunteer with Paint Your Heart Out, when he arrived at Tampa International Airport on Sunday.
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TAMPA - After chasing the votes of "NASCAR dads" at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, President Bush crossed the state for a steak dinner with political allies in Tampa.

Bush and his wife, Laura, ate at Bern's Steak House in South Tampa. They were joined by former Gov. Bob Martinez and his wife, Mary Jane, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and his wife, Dr. Linda McClintock-Greco, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Bush smiled and waved as he walked out of Bern's at about 9:30 p.m. A reporter asked him about his steak dinner.

"Very good," Bush grinned, and gave a thumbs-up. Bush and his wife then climbed into a black limousine and sped to their hotel, the Hyatt in downtown Tampa.

Today Bush is scheduled to visit NuAir, a window and door manufacturer on Anderson Road in Tampa. Traffic is expected to be snarled near Anderson and Hillsborough Avenues because of the presidential motorcade.

During the visit to NuAir - a family owned business for 50 years - Bush will hold a "conversation on the economy" with company employees.

He is scheduled to leave Tampa by midmorning.

The president's swing through Central Florida got under way with him delivering the command to start the premier stock car race.

"Gentlemen, start your engines!" said Bush, wearing a race jacket and squinting up from pit road to the grandstands, where some 180,000 fans roared. They were promptly drowned out by the scream of stock car engines.

Bush stayed for most of the race, then flew aboard Air Force One to Raytheon Aircraft Services at Tampa International Airport, landing at 4:18 p.m.

He shook hands with a welcoming party but made no remarks before being whisked off to the Hyatt. Hours later, he had the private dinner at Bern's. The presidential party was seated in a private room for the dinner. The press was kept at a distance and the president offered no substantive comments.

Customers continued to pour into the restaurant, seemingly oblivious to the famous diners inside.

Everyone was halted at the door by Secret Service agents, who waved metal-detecting wands over people's bodies.

A blond woman in a clingy gold top and tight jeans walked up to the door and waved to the White House press corps. After Secret Service agents determined that she had no dangerous objects in her pockets, she posed for a photo with the presidential limousine parked outside.

On Howard Avenue, across the street from the expensive restaurant, about 50 people stood behind yellow police tape to catch a glimpse of the president.

When Card exited, a cheer arose. A bigger cheer erupted when Bush and his wife walked out the door.

This is the fifth time that Bush has visited Tampa since his election in 2000; it is his 19th visit to Florida since the controversial election.

In Daytona, Bush seemed to relish a chance to see what he called "one of America's great sporting spectacles."

His motorcade took a slow half-lap around the flat edge of the sharply banked track.

With his wife, Laura, Bush walked the pits, mingling with drivers, shaking hands with fans. He peered into car No. 16, sponsored by the National Guard, and if the car reminded him of the tempest swirling around his own service in the Texas Air National Guard, he didn't show it.

Bush referred to that history in a prerace interview with NBC, which aired the race.

"I flew fighters when I was in the Guard, and I like speed," he said. "It would've been fun to drive up on these banks. . . . I'd like to, but I'm afraid the agents wouldn't let me."

The president also lingered with NASCAR legend Richard Petty.

"If you've never been to a Daytona 500, it's hard for me to describe what it's like to be down here with the drivers and to see the huge crowd and to feel the excitement for one of America's great sporting spectacles," Bush said.

The first couple watched the race from a suite, protected from the eardrum-shattering blast of noise, the gusts of wind and the trail of flying debris that washed over the grandstands each time the 43 cars sped past. The cars reach speeds of up to 200 mph.

"This is more than an event; it's a way of life for a lot of people, and you can feel excitement when you're here," Bush said.

The race provided an irresistible opportunity for Bush to woo tens of millions of NASCAR fans - the sport claims a fan base of 75-million - watching the televised event 81/2 months before the election. The crowd in the stands was almost exclusively white and heavily male. The phrase "NASCAR dads" has become political shorthand for voters who like Bush but who could be persuaded to vote Democratic if the issues and candidates were right.

One vote Bush can count on this year is 47-year-old Candido Corona of Wesley Chapel.

Corona was the "official greeter" of the president's Tampa trip and was there to meet him when he landed at TIA.

White House officials said Bush wanted to honor Corona for his years of volunteer work with Paint Your Heart Out Tampa. Corona has participated each year since 1998, the White House said.

Corona, who works at Tampa Electric Company as a mechanic, was told last week that Bush wanted to meet him.

On Sunday morning, he went shopping at Belk's to buy a new tie for the occasion. His wife and two teenagers stood on the tarmac and watched as he shook hands and posed for a photo with Bush.

"This feels great," said Corona. "I voted for President Bush, voted for his father, for his brother and I'm going to vote for the president again."

Bush also was met Darrell Irions, executive director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority; Ricardo Roig, an attorney with Roig and Associates in Tampa; Russell Thomas, president and CEO of Gold Standard Multimedia of Tampa; Dorinda Rabbitt, a teacher at Hillsborough High School and Cynthia Churchill, the executive director of Steppin' Stone Farm, a Christian residential home for at-risk teenage girls in Lithia.

[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]

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