ST. PETERSBURG - All around him were screaming fans and outstretched arms.
President Bush surrounded himself with thousands of faithful Republicans on Tuesday as he campaigned in Pinellas and Pasco counties, firing up supporters in a battleground region two weeks before the election.
"I love campaigning with my family," Bush said in New Port Richey, referring to two of his brothers, Florida's governor, Jeb, and "Big Marv" Marvin.
But he might as well have meant the crowds, which erupted as he labeled Democrat John Kerry a liberal who is out of touch with most Americans.
"There is a mainstream in American politics, and my opponent sits on the far left bank," Bush said in a familiar campaign line that brought a roar of support.
"Flip. Flop. Flip. Flop," the crowd chanted at Progress Energy Park, like hecklers at a ball game.
At the rally in New Port Richey, the crowd loved Bush's lines so much, they finished them for him.
"He can run from his record," he said.
"But he can't hide," the crowd shouted back.
Bush will return Friday night to St. Petersburg for a private fundraiser at the Snell Isle home of investor Jim MacDougald that is expected to raise about $1-million for the Florida Republican Party. Bush will spend the night in St. Pete Beach and campaign Saturday in Lakeland, Fort Myers, Melbourne and Jacksonville.
The president's two visits to Pinellas this week underscore the Tampa Bay area's importance in the tight race.
Bush began Tuesday defending his handling of the flu vaccine shortage. Kerry is running ads blaming the shortage on Bush's mishandling of health care policy.
"I know there are some here who are worried about the flu season," Bush said. "I want to assure them that our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots, despite the major manufacturing defect that caused this problem."
He said the government had stockpiled 4-million doses of vaccine for children and is working with local officials to get the vaccine for the most vulnerable.
The atmosphere at the outdoor rally felt like a country music concert, with women swaying to Lee Greenwood's music and teenagers singing lyrics.
Fans asked top Bush aides Karl Rove and Karen Hughes for autographs.
"I've never actually seen a president," said Dan Shea, 35, a teacher from Clearwater who brought his family.
With his sleeves rolled up, Bush described himself as a family man who speaks plainly and keeps his word.
"In the last few years, the American people have gotten to know me," Bush said. "They know my blunt way of speaking; I get that from Mother. They know I sometimes mangle the English language; I get that from Dad. They also know I tell you exactly what I'm going to do, and I keep my word."
Bush repeated familiar promises: He would keep a volunteer military. He would put a community health center in every poor county in America. He would not allow oil drilling off Florida' coast.
Bush promised to push for medical liability reform with help from U.S. Senate candidate Mel Martinez, who does not support Bush's proposed $250,000 cap on pain and suffering awards in lawsuits. He also said the United States would train armies in Iraq and Afghanistan until the countries become stable democracies.
"And then our troops will come home with the honor they have earned," he said.
Bush criticized Kerry for voting to authorize the war in Iraq but then opposing an $87-billion military spending bill. "He's given a lot of explanations for that vote since," Bush said mockingly. "One of the most interesting ones of all, he said, "Well, the whole thing was a complicated matter."'
The crowd snickered.
"There's nothing complicated about supporting our troops in harm's way," the president said.
Outside the St. Petersburg stadium, a crowd of Kerry supporters chanted slogans and clashed with Bush supporters.
"Oh look, it's white women for Bush - fat, happy white people for Bush," said Eric Bethman, 39, a white, unemployed Ralph Nader supporter.
Jay Sefchick, 34, a former Marine, screamed back. "You hate this country. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
A police officer separated the two.
After the morning rally in St. Petersburg, Bush boarded a bus and his motorcade brought traffic to a halt as he traveled north along Interstate 275, Ulmerton Road and McMullen-Booth Road.
In Safety Harbor, Bush jumped out for a cup of coffee and a piece of baklava at the Paradise Restaurant on Main Street.
Inside, Bush paid for food and posed for pictures with diners in suits, who appeared to be expecting the president. When a reporter asked Bush if he was accountable for the flu vaccine shortage, his security detail ordered all journalists, except photographers, out.
The president did not answer the question.
Twelve minutes later, Bush was on his way to New Port Richey for a rally at Sims Park, where thousands waited in the heat.
He said Kerry favored more government bureaucracy in health care and education policy. "There is a word for that attitude," Bush said. "It is called liberalism.
"He voted to increase taxes 98 times in his 20 years - that's about five times a year," Bush said. "I would call that a pattern. A predictable pattern."
Bush told voters not to believe Kerry's promise to rescind tax cuts for the wealthy but keep the president's tax cuts for those making $200,000 or less.
"Let me tell you what else is wrong with taxing the rich," Bush said. "The rich hire lawyers and accountants for a reason, to slip the bill and to pass it on to you.
"We're not going to let Sen. Kerry tax you."
George Mayer, a Gulf High School teacher, loved it. He had waited along a rope line for five hours, hoping to get a second with Bush.
As Bush left, he clasped Mayer's hands. Mayer pumped his fist and slapped a stranger's hand. "Thank you! Thank you!" he said.
Staff writers Bill Adair and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.