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The Presidential Campaign

Florida in candidates' crossfire

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards tells 4,000: "The American dream is on the ballot Nov. 2."

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published October 24, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The crowd had grown hot, sweaty and tired as they waited in North Straub Park on Saturday afternoon.

But then the music began to play, and the caravan arrived, and the man they had come to see walked along the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards ascended the stage, rolled up his shirt sleeves and greeted a cheering crowd estimated at 4,000 as Johnny B. Goode blared from loudspeakers.

"George Bush, your time is up. You're going back to Texas," Edwards told supporters waving homemade signs and American flags.

Framed by towering palm trees, Edwards told the crowd President Bush is to blame for losing jobs and failing to provide affordable health care, and said Bush has mishandled the war on terrorism.

"To our troops, we are with you," he said. "To terrorists, we will hunt you down. To America, we will keep you safe."

Edwards' trip to St. Petersburg was part of a two-day Florida sweep where he appeared at community gatherings and rallies in Boynton Beach, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Groups of protesters gathered around the St. Petersburg rally, and at least two people were arrested, police said. Several others were treated for heat-related health problems, rescue workers said.

During his 30-minute speech, Edwards talked about Social Security - a hot-button issue in Florida, home to nearly 3-million people age 65 and older. He cited a report that says plans to privatize Social Security could include raising the retirement age by five years.

"You can't spend 30 years mopping floors in hospitals and believe that five more years doesn't matter," Edwards told the crowd.

Fortune magazine, in its issue dated Nov. 1, reports the Social Security Administration is considering an idea that calls for early-retirement accounts that begin paying at age 62 by setting aside one-sixth of the money that employees and employers pay to Social Security.

To make up for the lost revenue, the magazine reported, the full retirement age would be pushed back from 67 to 72.

Although Bush was not named in the report, Edwards said the report showed the president was hiding the truth of what would happen in his second term.

"They are completely out of touch," Edwards said.

Bush spokesman Brian Jones said the claims were untrue and said Democrats are using scare tactics and trying "to score cheap political points."

Standing behind a metal barricade, Virginia Ryan, a 54-year-old St. Petersburg real estate agent, took pictures of the event with her cell phone, planning to send them to her sisters.

"I like his vitality," she said of Edwards. "I think he's really a nice complement to Kerry."

Nearby, a 43-year-old mother of two cheered and waved a sign that said, "African Americans for Kerry-Edwards."

Anne Wade Stone-Wanless said she was primarily interested in what Edwards had to say about health care. She said she had to give up her job as a social worker to take care of her 7-year-old son, who has a variety of health problems, and struggles to pay $250 for his monthly medications.

"A vote for Kerry is a vote for schools and for health care," she said.

Edwards said the president has allied himself with drug companies rather than citizens, and vowed to make health care available for every child in the country for the first time in history.

"The health care plan for the last four years? Pray you don't get sick," Edwards said.

Diane Adams, 69, of New Port Richey, said seniors are desperate for affordable prescriptions and need to vote for Kerry-Edwards.

"If Bush wins," she said, "I'm moving to Canada. I've already researched it."

Groups of protesters ringed the rally, and spent time shouting at each other while standing on opposite sides of Beach Drive.

Before the rally began, Sherilyn Karosen, 33, apparently a Kerry-Edwards supporter, grabbed a campaign sign from a protester, and then pushed a police officer who intervened, police said. She was arrested on a charge of resisting arrest with violence. A friend, Fred Srieta, 42, tried to intervene and also was arrested, police said.

Edwards ended the rally urging everyone in Florida to vote, and vote early.

"So many times in our lives we've heard that the presidential election was the most important in our lifetime," he said. "Well, this is the most important election in our lifetime ... The American dream is on the ballot Nov. 2. We all will decide whether the American dream is available to everybody."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified October 24, 2004, 00:27:32]

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