Hurricanes slow Fla. campaign, but Iraq, economy still on minds

Thursday, September 30, 2004

STUART, Fla. -- The four hurricanes that pounded Florida this season froze the state's presidential campaign in place, with President Bush fighting to keep Florida in his column amid voter concerns about Iraq and the local economy.

Now, there's a big new issue: hurricane recovery. As the Republican incumbent and Democratic Sen. John Kerry kick off the presidential debate season in Miami today, many Floridians are still distracted.

"I can't think of politics right now," said Bush supporter John Norris. The 53-year-old bartender and owner of a small apartment complex in downtown Stuart had tears in his eyes as he pointed to the top of the building's walls -- where his roof used to be.

Rolls of soggy, soiled carpet were piled at his feet, along with pieces of wicker furniture and a few toys. His words came in bursts, punctuated by sighs.

"I'm shell-shocked beyond belief," he said. "Four people are displaced in this building. It's a revenue-producing property. At least it used to be. I'm not sure whether insurance will pay. It's tough. But I'm not alone. I'm glad I'm alive."

Norris says he will vote for Bush. Like most storm victims interviewed this week, he said issues like Iraq, the economy and education will trump the weather again someday.

Florida, which swung the presidency to Bush in 2000, could determine whether he wins re-election. Kerry is courting the state's fast-growing Hispanic population while fighting perceptions in Florida that he is a weak leader. Despite his own political problems, Bush thinks he can make gains among newly arrived white voters from the Midwest and South.

Public polls show Bush with a slight lead. The campaigns say their private surveys suggest the race fluctuating almost daily between a tie and a narrow Bush lead.

In mid-August, before Hurricane Charley started the storm season, polls showed the race tied or Kerry slightly ahead. The Democrat, fresh off his nominating convention, was still enjoying his short-lived boost in poll ratings.

Since then, both candidates have faced questions about their Vietnam-era military service. Bush held his nominating convention. Kerry sharpened his criticism of the president's policies on Iraq. In Florida, many voters were too busy to notice.

Charley hammered Florida's southwest coast Aug. 13. Frances struck the Atlantic coast Sept 5. Ivan pelted the Panhandle on Sept. 16. Jeanne hit near here Saturday night.

"I would say the race is in suspended animation right now. We put the race down for a nap," said David Niven, political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.

As the campaign slowly rises from its slumber, Bush's political prospects are mixed. The state has gained 300,000 jobs since he took office, but a solid majority of voters tell pollsters the economic situation is less than satisfactory.

Florida voters are divided on whether invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

Bush is considered more of a leader, with one poll showing him with a 20 percentage point advantage over Kerry on that question. But voters of all stripes raise questions about Iraq, even Republicans such as Monty and Sandra Perini, who run a boutique in Stuart.

"I just don't think he's been completely honest with us," Sandra said of Bush. "Iraq is a mess," added her husband.

Forty-four soldiers from Florida have been killed in Iraq, more than all but California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Kerry supporter Beth Novins owns the Osceola Street Cafe, a hangout for political junkies in downtown Stuart. It's without power for the second time in a month.

"I'm sad to say I won't be watching the debate," she said. "All I care about is opening this place back up."

In Jacksonville, Fla., 52-year-old retiree Joy Phillips said all she cares about is the pace of hurricane recovery.

"If the president brings help, he'll go up in my estimation," she said. "If he doesn't, well. ..."

A Quinnipiac Poll shows 87 percent of Floridians approve of Gov. Jeb Bush's response to the hurricanes. His brother hopes those numbers rub off on him, and that voters don't get impatient with the pace of recovery.

Presidential advisers debated for days whether to stage Florida's first political rally in weeks or stick to hurricane-related events. Caution won out; Bush is touring storm damage for two straight days.

White House officials are worried that Bush's voters will stay home Nov. 2 because the hurricanes took their heaviest toll on Republican areas. But most political experts in Florida say Kerry may suffer his share of turnout woes because low- and middle-class Democrats will be the slowest to recover in GOP areas.

"There will be people who are homeless, people without phones," said Nick Baldick, senior adviser for Kerry in Florida. "Even a month from now, there will be people deciding whether to vote or go get water."

Between storms, armies of Democratic activists are urging Kerry backers to take advantage of Florida's early voting laws. Bush's legions are pushing absentee ballots.

Combined, the campaigns and their allies are spending more than $5 million a week on television ads in Florida.

Dawn Gray, 35, and her five small children have no electricity in their Stuart home. No TV. No air conditioning -- so they spent a warm Wednesday morning on the front lawn.

"It's hard to think about the election now, but I will vote," said the Republican. "I may be consumed with hoarding ice and saving food today, but what's going on outside these hurricanes is important, too."

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