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Bush, Gore concentrate on Florida

With fundraising visits and aggressive television advertising, both presidential candidates have their eyes on the prize: the state's 25 electoral votes.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


MIAMI -- With the presidential campaign headed toward a two-month sprint to Election Day, George W. Bush and Al Gore are matching each other on the air and on the ground as the race remains tight in Florida.

Bush raised more than $2-million in Miami this week and used Florida International University as a backdrop Friday for a speech on improving the nation's relationships with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. His campaign also began airing a new ad to answer criticism of his proposal to partially privatize Social Security by reassuring seniors that their existing benefits would undergo "no changes, no reductions, no way."

The Texas governor's appearance followed the vice president's trip to Broward County on Wednesday. Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman raised $500,000 at a fundraiser after charming Jewish Democrats at a retirement complex as they pledged to protect Social Security and offer a prescription drug benefit to seniors.

The aggressive battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes will not let up next week, either.

Gore and his wife, Tipper, plan to appear Monday in Tallahassee, Gov. Jeb Bush's back yard, to talk about health care. Tentative plans call for Mrs. Gore to spend Tuesday and Wednesday traveling the state on her own.

Meanwhile, Bush's running mate, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, will campaign Thursday in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Both campaigns are showering attention on Florida, the largest state that remains in play. Gore appears to be comfortably ahead in California and New York, which hold a combined 87 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win. Bush has his home state of Texas' 32 electoral votes locked up.

That leaves Florida as the biggest individual prize still unclaimed, although the national race may ultimately hinge on the outcomes in swing states in the Rust Belt, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

Florida once was considered a lock for Bush, although President Clinton became the first Democrat to win the state's electoral votes in 20 years in 1996. Republicans have a firm grasp on state government now, and Gov. Jeb Bush provides his older brother with a significant advantage in organization and fundraising.

But Gore has not gone away.

Now Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas calls an estimated 3-to-5-percentage-point Bush lead "a quasi-comfortable margin." Post-convention opinion polls are expected to be conducted shortly by both parties to more accurately gauge the contest.

Both campaigns are relying on traditional battle plans to win the state.

Gore's appearance in heavily Democratic Broward was designed to energize the party's base and build toward a large voter turnout. The late Gov. Lawton Chiles defeated Jeb Bush in 1994 and Clinton defeated Bob Dole in 1996 because their large victory margins in South Florida offset losses elsewhere.

"High turnout, Gore wins," Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state chairman, said recently.

Meanwhile, Gore also is focusing on the so-called "I-4 corridor" of swing voters that stretches from the Tampa Bay area through Orlando. The Democrat's television advertising is heavily concentrated in those two markets as well as West Palm Beach.

Bush's ads are running in more markets throughout the state. And while his speech on Friday aimed at a national audience, his appearance at FIU before about 400 business and community leaders served to pump up Hispanic voters who are expected to side overwhelmingly with him. Florida International has more Hispanic students, nearly 16,500, than any other U.S. university.

"This is a battleground county, and we're fighting for it," said Jillian Inmon, who is coordinating Bush's Florida's campaign.

The Texas governor argued that the Clinton administration has not done enough to improve trade with Latin America or help those countries fight drugs, create jobs and build democracies. He pledged to persuade Congress to give him "fast track" negotiating authority for trade agreements, which has been denied Clinton, and offered a list of other proposals: money for loans for small Latin American businesses, reapproval of an effort to protect tropical forests, more border patrol agents and an overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Those who ignore Latin America do not fully understand America itself," Bush said. "And those who ignore our hemisphere do not fully understand American interests."

As expected, Bush also denounced Cuba's Fidel Castro and vowed to keep existing sanctions against the country in place.

The Texas governor received quick criticism from Gore campaign officials, who contended Bush has done little to improve relationships with Mexico. They said Bush's proposals for new investments that would lead to small business loans in Latin America have been opposed by Republicans in Congress, and they cited a number of accomplishments by the Clinton administration, including the 1994 Summit of the Americas that was held in Miami.

Gore had hoped to win significant support from Hispanic voters in Florida as Clinton did four years ago. The controversy over Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was returned home in June, hurt those efforts. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, once a highly visible Gore supporter, skipped the Democratic convention and no longer appears publicly with the vice president in South Florida.

Democrats are trying to mitigate the damage with Lieberman, whose efforts in the Senate to combat Cuba have won him respect among many Hispanic activists. But Hispanic Republicans said that strategy won't work.

"He's not the candidate," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said of Lieberman. "People know the vice president is one of many advisers. People know it is a Bush-Gore race."

Bush is expected to do particularly well in the areas Republicans carry with regularity, including Southwest Florida and North Florida. He already has made several appearances in Orlando and, like Gore, hopes to win over swing voters in the state's midsection.

Both sides downplay their geographic maneuvering. Gore and Bush supporters each argue that their candidate's message will sell to voters anywhere in the state.

In Gore's case, the message is that Bush's proposed tax cuts are too risky and that his plan to enable younger workers to steer part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts would harm Social Security.

"It's more of a demographic than geographic thing," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said.

For Bush, the challenge is to recast himself as a defender of Social Security while arguing that Gore's spending proposals would be more fiscally irresponsible than tax cuts.

"Our politics and the Democrats' politics are quite different," said Cardenas, the state GOP chairman. "They take the rifle-shot approach to specific issues in specific communities. We are more generalist in our approach."

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