ORLANDO - It usually starts the same way: a beaming John Kerry lopes into view, pumping a fist into the air. He peels off his blazer and tosses it to the side.
Time for another "town hall meeting" with the Democratic presidential candidate, doing his best to tone down his patrician bearing and mix it up with voters.
"You didn't come from New York, did you?" the Boston Red Sox fan asked an Orlando woman with a distinct New York accent who attended his appearance here Wednesday. "At least you didn't stand up and say, "Go Yankees."'
Score one for the Massachusetts senator adopting the genial banter of a TV talk show host.
Day after day, including Wednesday at a health care forum in Orlando, Kerry strides into crowds, thrusting a microphone at people, inviting them to spill their woes and ask him questions.
"The criticism you hear about him on TV is that he's cold and standoffish, but in this kind of setting he doesn't come off that way at all," said Virginia Burgos, an Orlando retiree, after the hourlong question-and-answer session.
Town hall meetings are nothing new in political contests. But they have become a favorite for Kerry, having helped him clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.
Before Iowa's caucuses in January, when most experts were writing off Kerry's prospects, he turned into a marathon town meeting moderator. He even paid to air a 30-minute unedited town meeting across the state.
He sometimes spent hours at meetings and refused to leave until every question had been answered. Don't hold back, he would exhort undecided voters. "I want you to get in my gut. I want you to get in my heart." Kerry won in Iowa.
Kerry still chooses the town meeting over the campaign speech whenever he can, his staff said, but the meet-the-voters events are starkly different now that he has clinched the nomination. In Orlando, undecided voters were hard to find among the several hundred invited Democratic activists and union members awaiting Kerry's arrival and chanting, "Bush lied! People died!"
And rather than free-wheeling discussions, the campaign stages such events to underscore its chosen message of the day. This week's message has been health care. Kerry rarely veered from it, even with the Iraqi prison scandal dominating the news.
Still, on Wednesday, Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot accused Kerry of exploiting the Iraqi prison controversy for political gain. When asked about Iraq in an interview Wednesday with Associated Press Radio, Kerry called for a repudiation of President Bush's leadership.
"Why should we reward more of the same? Why should we reward miscalculations of what it would take to make the peace?" Kerry asked in the interview. "I think that it's been one miscalculation after another, frankly. And arrogance that has lost America respect and influence in the world."
Rejecting the charge that he had politicized the war, Kerry said, "They had no plan for winning the peace and now Americans are paying the price. A couple of hundred billion dollars a year, and that is disgraceful."
But before the crowd at the Engelwood community center in a largely Puerto Rican area of Orlando, Kerry focused exclusively on health care. Several people in the audience complained about inadequate health benefits for veterans, and Kerry vowed to help.
"Folks, this administration has had no problem finding several trillion dollars in tax cuts for the people who have done the best in the United States of America," said Kerry, a Vietnam veteran. "I don't think that ought to happen at the expense of the people that wore the uniform for our country."
The 60-year-old four-term senator can give informed answers on most any topic. Even at his best, though, he is no Bill Clinton when it comes to inspiring a crowd. He tends to speak in slow, windy sentences. He opts for 20 words when five would do.
Consider one of his biggest applause lines Wednesday:
"If you entrust me with the presidency of the United States, the first legislation that I will introduce, within 24 hours of being sworn in, to the Congress of the United States is my plan to make the same health care plan that senators and congressmen get available and accessible to anybody in America and to make sure that health care is not a privilege for the elected and the connected. It's a right that (should be) accessible and affordable to all of America."
It wouldn't fit on a bumper sticker, but the crowd cheered.
Afterward, a number of Orlando-area Democrats said they were more impressed than they had expected to be.
"I wouldn't say he's exciting, but he's very down to earth and seemed genuinely in touch with regular people," said Terri Rabac, who works at a car dealership and came with her 12-year-old son Ryan.
Kerry's Florida swing on Tuesday and Wednesday was the latest sign that he intends to fight for America's biggest battleground state, which is widely viewed as essential for Bush's shot at a second term. The campaign has started sending staffers into the state and expects to open an office soon.
An internal poll completed Sunday for America Coming Together, a Democratic group independently mobilizing Florida Democrats, found 48 percent of likely Florida voters backed Kerry, 46 percent supported Bush and 3 percent backed Ralph Nader. The poll was conducted by the firm Hamilton Beattie & Staff, which surveyed 1,000 voters.
Ralph Reed, the Bush-Cheney campaign's regional chairman, said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Kerry is wasting his time. Outgoing Florida Sen. Bob Graham is among several candidates Kerry is looking at for a running mate, but Reed said even with Graham on the ticket Kerry would lose Florida and every other Southern state.
"John Kerry may have Bob Graham, but we've got Jeb Bush," Reed said. "I'd rather have Jeb Bush."
- Times staff writer Bill Adair contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 727893-8241.