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By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
Thousands come to hear the president speak in the swing-voter haven that is the I-4 corridor.
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
|President Bush enters the Orange County Convention Center for his Saturday rally.|
ORLANDO - At the first rally of his re-election campaign, President Bush told 12,000 supporters that he will be "spending some quality time in Florida" in the months to come and acknowledged that he has to work hard to win this crucial state.
"We're here to earn your vote," Bush said. "And we need your help."
During his 45-minute speech at the Orange County Convention Center, Bush wasted no time in attacking his Democratic challenger, U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
He portrayed Kerry as a chronic tax-raiser who has flip-flopped on key issues such as the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and Medicare during his decades in the Senate.
"Sen. Kerry has been in Washington long enough to be on both sides of every issue," Bush said. "One position is never just enough."
Bush also criticized Kerry for claiming that some foreign leaders would prefer him in office.
"That's okay," Bush said, "because I'm going to keep my campaign right here in America."
The rally was attended by the GOP faithful. Middle-aged women in sweat suits carrying red, white and blue pom-poms; young, clean-cut guys in polo shirts and khakis; and toddlers bearing pins with "LUVYA DUBYA" on their tiny T-shirts.
A few also held up handmade signs: Moms for Bush. Cops for Bush. I-4 Corridor for Bush.
That last one may be the most significant sign of all. Especially for Bush in Florida.
The Interstate 4 corridor - which stretches from Daytona Beach to Tampa Bay - is an important swath of swing voters. So it's no surprise the Bush campaign chose Orlando, which is smack in the middle of the I-4 corridor, for the first rally.
Nationally, Florida is an important, and symbolic, state for the Bush campaign.
It's the state that decided the 2000 election. It was only after the Supreme Court ended Florida ballot recounts that Bush sealed his victory in the state - by a mere 537 votes - and thus claimed the presidency. In addition, Florida is led by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, and it leads the nation in big-money donors to the president's re-election campaign.
Bush's supporters are taking nothing for granted. A recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll showed that Kerry leads Bush by 6 percentage points in the Sunshine State, whose 27 electoral votes are crucial to both campaigns.
Many of the things Bush talked about on Saturday - the war in Iraq, prescription drugs for seniors, tax cuts - were topics Bush has addressed during official visits around the country, including a stop in Tampa in February.
Saturday's visit was Bush's 20th visit to Florida since taking office.
The Bush campaign is emphasizing his tested leadership; his quest for additional tax cuts, after having delivered three rounds already; and his support for U.S. troops.
On Friday, Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson and Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami made a pre-emptive strike against Bush, 24 hours before the rally even happened.
"Isn't it ironic that the president has chosen Florida to kick off his campaign ... when Florida has been hit so hard by the Bush policies?" Nelson asked.
Nelson ticked off a string of statistics that he says show Florida is in worse economic condition than it was before the president was elected, including bankruptcies, uninsured workers and job losses.
After the rally, Kerry's campaign aides issued a response to the president's accusations that he favors higher taxes and a weakened defense. They said Bush has presided over an era of "hidden" tax increases in the form of higher college tuition, health care costs, gas prices and property taxes - all while incomes had fallen.
"A jobless economy means nothing to the millions of Americans looking for work or wondering where their next paycheck will come from," Kerry said in a statement. "The Bush economic policies have failed. It's time for America to move in a new direction."
Bush's campaign is trying a strategy that has been more closely associated with the Democratic Party: grass roots organizing. After the president's speech, thousands of Republicans at the convention center flocked to neighborhoods and to telephones, seeking to sway undecided voters and register people to vote.
In the weeks leading up to the rally, Republicans registered some 600 new voters, signed up 2,000 volunteers and persuaded 200 voters to switch parties, said Ralph Reed, southeast regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
"It's an unprecedented grass roots campaign," Reed said.
It's one that has attracted Cassandra Pauley, of Tampa.
"A lot of people need that interpersonal contact," said Pauley, a 40-year-old English professor at the University of South Florida. She stood under a sign that said "Walkers" at the Bush rally, and boarded a bus to an Orange County neighborhood later in the day.
Pauley said she admires Bush's courage for the war in Iraq.
Saturday marked the first anniversary of the war, and Bush was quick to tout his accomplishments in the Middle East.
"Because we acted, the world is more free and America is more secure," he said.
Bush did not address the recent news that Spain's newly elected leader plans to pull troops out of Iraq, or the widespread protests against the war held around the world Saturday.
Protesters inside and outside the convention center in Orlando did, however. About 80 people stood outside the convention center.
Inside, just as "Hail to the Chief" started to play, three young men chanted, "No more Bush."
Some Republican supporters tried to drown out their chanting, and shoved the three men. A man wearing a shirt with the words "Young Republican-Event Staff" escorted the trio out of the area.
A group of vocal Republicans quickly replaced the protesters' spot on the floor.
"Four more years!" they chanted. "USA!"
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]
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