J. Pat Carter  /  AP file
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry speaks at a campaign stop Monday in Lake Worth, Fla.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 4/22/2004 6:37:18 PM ET 2004-04-22T22:37:18

Making his 21st visit to Florida since becoming president, George W. Bush on Friday is driving home the same point that his Democratic rival John Kerry made in three days of campaigning in the state this week: The state’s 27 electoral votes are alluring enough to have the rivals visit again and again, from April to November.

The question, to paraphrase an old song, is “will you love me in October as you do in April?” How often will Kerry and Bush be back in September, October and the day before the election? Can one side put the state out of reach by autumn?

Florida’s votes, together with the electoral votes of other big states that Kerry is very likely or virtually certain to win — New York, California, Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland, combined with bloc of New England states where he should roll to victory — adds up to a foundation of 185 electoral votes, about 70 percent of the number needed to win the White House.

The most recent poll in Florida shows Bush ahead of Kerry by eight percentage points, but other surveys in the state in the past several weeks indicate a closer race, with Kerry ahead in some polls.

Through heavy TV ad buys in Florida, the Bush team appears to be sparing no effort to put the state out of play for Kerry early in the competition.

'Clobbering Kerry on Iraq'
Independent pollster Jim Kane, who lives in south Florida, says, “I see a lot of Bush ads on television nearly every minute of every day. The Bush ads are clobbering Kerry on Iraq.”

Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox said, "George W. Bush has spent over a million dollars on our airwaves and it has not moved the meter. He should put his mouth where his money is" by agreeing to a debate in Florida against Kerry, Maddox said.

Bush has an edge because the Florida economy is in better shape than that of many other states. Its unemployment rate is a 4.6 percent, compared to the national average of 5.7 percent. “Florida has done very well over the past year,” Kane said. “Tourism has not suffered as much as manufacturing.”

But it is precisely that tourism dependence that makes Florida voters’ pocketbooks so vulnerable to another terrorist attack, as Republican Rep. Ric Keller of Orlando, whose congressional district includes Disney World, reminded Secretary of State Colin Powell when he testified before a House committee Wednesday on extending a deadline for nations in the Visa Waiver Program to produce passports with biometric identifiers.

“If we have one more plane attack into a building, our community is devastated, because nobody will fly anymore to visit our theme parks,” Keller told Powell. “On the other hand, if we do not grant this extension and visitors cannot come here, our community is devastated.”

Then there’s the related issue of Iraq. At Bush’s press conference last week, the president predicted that voters would “stay with me (on Iraq). They understand the stakes.”

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Asked whether his constituents do indeed understand the stakes, as Bush sees them, in Iraq, Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., who represents a central Florida district told, “I think they do. They don’t necessarily understand the details of the strategy. They don’t know how or when this drama is going to end. But Americans during war time and during time of great threat to our country have never changed horses in middle of the stream. That was true about the Civil War, despite Lincoln’s unpopularity before the election, it was true in World War II, and it was true in the Cold war, when Reagan announced he was ending détente.”

Prescription drugs
With as much a third of the electorate over the age of 65, Florida will be a test case of how beneficial Bush’s new prescription drug program will prove to be.

The program is not easy to explain in a sound bite. It doesn’t take full effect until 2006, it has a deductible, and it has detailed payment rules: “You will pay 100 percent of the drug costs above $2,250 until you reach $3,600 in out-of-pocket spending,” is part of the explanation in the guide from Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The electoral impact in Florida? “Right now it’s a muddle,” said Kane. “It could be a problem for Bush. Most older voters are confused; it’s a complicated program. Right now it is not helping Bush, but it’s not hurting him either.”

Feeney who was one of 25 House Republicans to vote against the plan due to its expansion of big government, told, “I don’t think Medicare is going to play much of a role at all in the election. To the extent there’s a benefit for the president, it probably takes that issue off the table. But I’d say the average voter in central Florida, from what I can tell, doesn’t know much about the bill and doesn’t care a whole lot about it.”

Crucial corridor
Some analysts and Florida politicos say that the battle for the state will largely be fought in the Interstate 4 corridor that stretches from Tampa on the west through Orlando to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic coast.

According to Kane, the I-4 corridor now outweighs the heavily Democratic trio of south Florida counties, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, in the total number of votes cast. Kane says voters in I-4 corridor are not case-hardened partisans; they are open to considering a candidate if exposed to a skillful ad campaign.

In the 2002 governor’s race, Republican incumbent Jeb Bush won the I-4 corridor, 58 percent to 41 percent over Democrat Bill McBride.

But in 2000, Democrat Senate candidate Bill Nelson bested Republican Bill McCollum in the I-4 corridor, 51 percent to 46 percent.

“The I-4 corridor is made up of, you name it: Hispanic swing voters, the soccer moms, professional women and the NASCAR dads,” Feeney said. “You’ve got a large independent population.”

He added, “They are up for grabs. Not only are they undecided potentially, but they are undecided about whether to actually vote. So there are two huge variables there and those variables don’t exist either in north Florida and the south. If it’s a totally negative campaign in central Florida, these are the kind of voters who may say, ‘I don’t like either one of them.’ There’s a big variable in terms of turnout.”

But Maddox dissents from the view that I-4 corridor will decide the outcome. The Florida winner, said Maddox, "will also be decided by turnout in southeast Florida, in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, and by swing voters between Lake City and Panama City" in the Florida Panhandle.

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