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    Frantic senior center ready for Barbara Bush

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    PALM HARBOR -- Irene Rausch got word Thursday morning that former first lady Barbara Bush would be coming to the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center today to stump for her son, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush.

    It has been crazy there ever since, said Rausch, director of the senior center.

    "The phone is ringing off the hook," Rausch said Monday afternoon.

    The Secret Service already has visited five times to measure rooms, check the building's security and map out entrance and exit routes.

    Volunteers have stepped forward to set up and clean up.

    "Someone comes to visit, you need to have a clean house," Rausch said.

    The selection of the Palm Harbor senior center came at the suggestion of Sandy Faulkner, who is co-chairwoman of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Pinellas County.

    In August, Faulkner's daughter, Debbie, 15, a sophomore at East Lake High School, helped organize a fundraiser at the senior center. The music and variety show raised $2,000 for the senior center.

    "That was the first time I got a look at the facility," Sandy Faulkner said. "I didn't even know it existed."

    She was impressed.

    So when the Bush campaign called looking for a a campaign stop in North Pinellas, Faulkner said she immediately recommended the senior center. Faulkner had pitched the senior center for a visit from George W. Bush at the end of September, but the facility was not deemed large enough.

    Leo DiBenigno, the Florida spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the I-4 corridor is considered a critical battleground to winning the state. Important enough, he said, for the campaign to unleash its "secret weapon," Barbara Bush.

    "Barbara Bush is perhaps our greatest advocate in being able to communicate to seniors of all backgrounds," DiBenigno said.

    She will be warning seniors to not to believe the Gore campaign's "scare tactics" regarding Social Security, he said. Also in attendance will be Gov. Jeb Bush and a host of local politicians.

    Rausch is expecting as many as 2,000 people to descend on the senior center at 1500 16th St. this morning. The event is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. The rally is scheduled to begin sometime after 9:30 a.m.

    "Parking will be a problem," Rausch said.

    Her suggestion: carpool.

    A handful of volunteers worked diligently Monday setting up chairs, mopping the floors and tending to last-minute details.

    "It's a big deal, all the logistics that go into it," Rausch said.

    There will be seating for 240 in the senior center's main hall, with standing room for another 240. Outside, chairs will be set up to accommodate several hundred more. Event organizers plan to set up a video screen to broadcast the event live to those outside.

    While the planning has been stressful, Rausch isn't complaining.

    "It's exciting," she said.

    Rausch also hopes the event will give a boost to the referendum asking Palm Harbor voters to support the senior center with a dedicated real estate tax.

    "People who said they didn't know we're here will know we're here," Rausch said.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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