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Hurricane Charley

Disaster subverts election strategy

Published August 20, 2004

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Republican Chris King knew he had little time left to campaign. So Wednesday morning, he followed his strategy as planned. On a busy street corner, he waved signs for his bid for the state House.

No one would have noticed, except that King was standing on U.S. 41 in North Port, just a few miles from neighborhoods leveled by Hurricane Charley.

"You shouldn't be doing this," drivers rolled down their windows to say.

"That wasn't the best idea," King acknowledged later. "I won't be doing that again."

Hurricane Charley has put candidates on the Aug. 31 ballot in southwest Florida in a bind: How should they campaign without offending voters who are thinking about survival, not politics?

So far, the state has said that the primary election will go on as planned a week from Tuesday in counties devastated by the hurricane.

The disaster has made most of the usual politicking impossible. Voters can't see TV ads because there's no electricity. Hurricane-force winds blew away yard signs. The mail that delivers campaign brochures was interrupted by the storm.

King, who has volunteered to help victims, knows he's stepping around land mines. "I don't want to be insensitive," he said.

On the other hand, his political consultant told him to keep working. Much of the district is in unaffected parts of Sarasota County. He said voters greeted him warmly when he walked precincts Tuesday night.

"The fact of the matter is the election is going to take place in less than two weeks," he said.

Two U.S. Senate candidates went to the area this week in their capacities as elected officials. U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Hollywood, took supplies to three sites, and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas led a caravan of volunteers to deliver supplies.

"You have to walk very gingerly," said Susan MacManus, a government professor at the University of South Florida. "It could backlash."

In southwest Florida, Charley may help incumbents, MacManus said, because voters seek stability in times of crisis. The number of people who vote, already expected to be low, will probably plummet.

"I really don't think people in Port Charlotte ... are going to be paying a whole lot of attention to it," said Michael Grant, a Republican running against King for the House.

Tuesday, Grant was working on his roof when asked about his campaign. "There are other priorities," he said. "I suppose the campaign will take care of itself."

Across the street, his neighbor, County Commissioner Sara Devos, was facing a challenge from three Republicans. The second floor of her house had blown away.

She sounded dazed when a reporter reached her. She hadn't thought about her campaign, she said.

"Right now, I don't care," said Devos, 53.

The only thing she planned to do was vote.

"I have never missed an election," she said.

Times staff writers Anita Kumar and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified August 20, 2004, 02:00:58]

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