Video: Focus on Florida

NBC News and news services
updated 10/18/2004 9:50:35 AM ET 2004-10-18T13:50:35

With 15 days remaining until Election Day and two new polls offering differing snapshots on the state of the presidential race, President Bush was expected to focus on national security on Monday in New Jersey, which was hard hit by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, while Sen. John Kerry zeroed in on health care in the key battleground of Florida.

Bush, in what aides were billing as a “significant” address in New Jersey, planned to make the case that Kerry has a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terror, aides said.

In Florida, Kerry was encouraging supporters to take advantage of a new “early voting” option while laying out his prescription for avoiding another flu vaccine shortage like the one this season.

Overall, polls continued to paint the race as extremely tight, though one new survey showed Bush opening a lead over Kerry.

Tracking poll shows race a dead heat
The latest three-day Reuters/Zogby tracking poll showed Kerry pulling into a statistical dead heat with Bush, with the candidates deadlocked at 45 percent apiece. The president had a 46-44 percent lead over the Massachusetts senator the previous day, and a four-point lead the day before that.

About 7 percent of likely voters say they are still undecided between the two White House rivals, according to the tracking poll.

But a poll released Sunday by USA Today, CNN and the Gallup polling organization indicated that Bush had opened an eight-point lead — 52 percent to 44 percent — over his Democratic rival among likely voters.

The latest poll, taken after the final debate last Wednesday, showed Bush ahead 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters.

In the previous Gallup poll, released last Monday, likely voters gave Kerry a one-point edge over Bush, 49 percent to 48 percent.

After a contentious weekend in which Kerry accused Bush of planning a “January surprise” in which he would unveil a plan to privatize Social Security, Bush was going back on the offensive in his speech in New Jersey — a state that hasn’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

Bush stresses national security
Speaking in a state that lost nearly 700 residents in the Sept. 11 terror attacks and where polls show national security and terrorism are the top campaign issues among voters in the state, Bush was arguing that his Democratic challenger does not understand that “nothing is more important than the security of our country.”

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Video: Social Security charges

Campaign officials said he would again mock Kerry’s comments on terrorism in a New York Times Magazine article Oct. 10, when the Massachusetts senator said, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.”

To appear as the tougher candidate on terrorism, Bush has been telling supporters at rallies that he couldn’t disagree more. “Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance,” he says. “Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive.”

Democrat Al Gore easily won New Jersey in 2000 by 16 percentage points, but voters’ worry about another terrorist attack is a key reason why Bush and Kerry are locked in a tight race for the state’s 15 electoral votes.

“From a lot of places in New Jersey you could see the towers,” Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser, told reporters at a weekend campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“A lot of people in New Jersey, a lot of communities in New Jersey felt personally the sting of 9/11. I think that has made them more sensitive — as we get close to the end — about the question of who will make America safer.”

Bush will get Pennsylvania coverage
You can’t see downtown Manhattan from Marlton, a city in southern New Jersey where Bush will speak, but it’s within the Philadelphia media market and Pennsylvania is a state where the candidates are competing head-to-head too.

Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart says New Jersey is an interesting place for the president to campaign because its two senators and former Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission, have complained that Bush hasn’t done enough to push the panel’s recommendations into law.

Lockhart said widows of the attacks plan to express their concern Monday about Bush’s strategy in winning the war on terror.

Before heading to New Jersey, Bush was meeting at the White House with members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams and signing a bill giving the Department of Homeland Security about $33 billion for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

The bill is nearly $900 million more than Bush requested of Congress. It includes $1.1 billion in grants to states based on population, $400 million more than he wanted. But its $875 million for cities considered attractive targets for terrorists is nearly $600 million below Bush’s request. In addition, it provides $3.6 billion for police and other emergency responders — about $500 million less than last year’s total.

After his speech in New Jersey, Bush was flying to Florida for a “victory dinner” at a private residence in Boca Raton.

Kerry urges supporters to vote early
Kerry planned to spend all day in the Sunshine State, encouraging voters to cast their ballots for him in the “early voting” that began Monday and then focus on getting their friends and family members to vote.

“You have got to start voting tomorrow,” Kerry told thousands of Floridians in Pembroke Pines on Sunday. “And you’ve got to get your friends to go out and vote starting tomorrow.”

While asking for votes, Kerry also planned to lay out his plan to avoid future flu vaccine shortages.

Kerry wants manufacturers to report vaccine supplies to public health officials, encourage the donation and public buyback of surplus vaccines, establish a reserve of the inoculations and encourage more drug makers to produce the vaccine.

Florida, the 2000 battleground that decided the election by 537 votes, remains a battleground this year.

In polls taken after the first presidential debate, one shows Bush ahead and others show the candidates running neck-and-neck. A clear victory by either candidate offers 27 electoral votes and a chance to avoid the recount that decided the 2000 election.

Early voting was introduced in Florida after the prolonged 2000 ballot count. Rep. Kendrick Meek, chairman of Kerry’s Florida election effort, said the extra time should help the state find and solve similar problems that might arise.

15 days to resolve any problems
“If I have a problem, I will have 15 days to resolve the issue vs. two hours on Election Day,” Meek said.

Democrats said they have 46,000 volunteers mobilized to help get out the early vote, delivering a blizzard of phone calls and mail.

They also have no shortage of politicians and party officials imploring them to get to the polls. Besides the presidential candidates, Florida got a visit from Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, on Sunday.

“We have to rise up and make sure that our voices are heard and that begins tomorrow,” Edwards said from the pulpit of a Baptist church.

Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said he and Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other prominent black Democrats plan visits next week and urge people to minimize the possibility for trouble by voting early.

“It’s very important,” McAuliffe said. “We are encouraging them to vote early just to get it done.”

Bush accused of planning Social Security privatization
On Sunday, Kerry accused the president of secretly planning a surprise second-term effort to privatize Social Security and forecast a “disaster for America’s middle class.”

Republicans denied the charge as scare tactics with little more than two weeks remaining in a tight election. “It is just flat inaccurate,” said GOP chairman Ed Gillespie.

NBC's Norah O'Donnell and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


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