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The Presidential Campaign

Panhandle residents never waver from Bush

President Bush will hear nothing but praise today in a Republican stronghold, a region he easily won in 2000.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published August 10, 2004

PENSACOLA - Spend a few hours in the Coffee Cup restaurant, and you wonder why President Bush is even bothering to campaign here today.

Among the patrons digging into grits at breakfast and fried chicken at lunch Monday, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, missing weapons of mass destruction and a cloudy economy are mere distractions from an obvious political choice.

"President Bush is doing a wonderful job. He's going after the terrorists, instead of waiting for them to come after us," retired engineer Lansing Smith said, hunched over the Formica counter. "John Kerry's just a flip-flopper. His 20 years in the Senate has been nothing but liberal."

To call Escambia County a Republican stronghold is like calling Tiger Woods a decent golfer. The Rev. Jerry Falwell once called Escambia the most conservative county in America. John F. Kennedy was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Escambia.

It's the biggest county in the western Panhandle congressional district, which Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain will cross by bus today. The district includes six counties and roughly 400,000 voters. Escambia, the largest of the counties, boasts about 175,000 voters.

The president won the district by more than two to one in 2000, and his campaign is counting on an even stronger showing in November to counteract anti-Bush passion in heavily Democratic south Florida.

At the Coffee Cup, a downtown Pensacola institution that gets a steady flow of local professionals, politicians and military retirees, diners on Monday sounded unlikely to disappoint.

"Bush is strong and straight to the point," said Glenn Martin, a 51-year-old defense contractor, sitting by a framed picture of the Pensacola-based Blue Angels, Navy pilot demonstration squadron. "Unlike Kerry, Bush does not seem - what's the word? - full of c---."

In a state where Bush and Al Gore virtually tied in 2000 and where recent polls show Kerry either leading or tied with Bush, westernmost north Florida seems like a separate land. It sits in the central time zone (locals still grumble about networks calling the 2000 election for Gore 10 minutes before the polls closed), and the Coffee Cup's parking lot was sprinkled with University of Alabama bumper stickers.

Party labels mean little in Escambia. Until this year, registered Democrats actually outnumbered Republicans even as the region consistently voted Republican in statewide elections. People talk about their sense of politicians' morality and basic philosophy.

Even in a region with six major military bases and thousands of retired veterans, Kerry's record as combat-decorated Vietnam veteran won over almost no one at the Coffee Cup. Over and over again Monday people questioned whether Kerry deserved all his medals and noted - incorrectly - that few of the swift boat crewmates who served directly under Kerry backed his campaign. (In truth, all but one of them support Kerry's campaign.)

Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, is expected to campaign in the Panhandle soon, but at least at the Coffee Cup, Edwards' Southern, son-of-a-millworker bona fides appeared to sway few people.

"I read his background, about how he made a living as a (trial lawyer) before he went into politics, and I think there's much too much frivolous litigation," said Sal Pippin, a real estate broker munching fried chicken and predicting an even bigger Panhandle win for Bush this year. "It doesn't matter where he's from if he's got a different philosophy. This is a conservative area, where people want less government."

A rare dissenter in the bustling coffee shop filled with pro-Bush sentiment was Bill Griffin, a pharmaceutical sales representative.

"Six months ago, I would would have said, "Absolutely Bush will win two thirds of the vote here,' but now I would just say "probably," said Griffin. "There are people who say, "Bush didn't do what he said he would do, and I'm going to give Kerry a shot.' It's basically because of what's gone on in Iraq. I have a friend who's been over there three times."

Democrats are at least making noises that they will fight for a share of the Panhandle vote. The most successful statewide politicians in Florida, including Sens. Graham and Bill Nelson and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, have managed to minimize their north Florida losses, and some Democrats think Gore could have taken the state in 2000 with a little effort in the Panhandle.

On Monday, Sen. Graham, former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, and Jim Rassmann, a former Green Beret who credits Kerry with saving his life in Vietnam, flew to Pensacola to challenge Bush's record. At least 400 Democrats - an unusually large crowd - came to cheer them on. The region's Democrats say their party is as energized it has ever been, but history suggests they still face an overwhelmingly pro-Bush majority.

"We've been lonely for too long," Democratic activist Patricia Edmisten said, thanking the Democratic Kerry surrogates for coming.

Graham and Cleland challenged Bush's record on military benefits, on reducing health care costs, having a strategy for stabilizing Iraq and protecting the environment.

"When it comes to the environment, the president has said to the people of Pensacola, "Drop dead. We're not interested in you,"' Graham said.

Despite the region's strong conservative streak, environmentalism runs strong among Panhandle residents who cherish sugary beaches along the Gulf.

Democrats think they have an opening there. Welcoming Bush to the Panhandle today will be a TV ad, paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, bashing the president for approving in 2001 a plan that would have allowed offshore drilling a few dozen miles off Pensacola. The bill was later changed to limit drilling to at least 100 miles from Florida beaches.

Bush's bus trip today will take him from Pensacola to Niceville to Panama City, an area likely to be his strongest region in Florida. Democrats called it a signal the president is worried about his base, but at least at the Coffee Cup, Bush had nothing to worry about.

"The president didn't win 100 percent of the vote in the Panhandle in 2000," said Bush-Cheney spokesman Scott Stanzel. "In a state that was decided by 537 votes, the president is going to be seeking support wherever he can find it."

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Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 9, 2004, 23:41:19]