Bush in Florida to seek support for tax-cut plan

President to visit friendly turf in state that decided election

Democrats plan rallies

March 12, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Since taking office, President Bush has not visited the state that is governed by his brother, where the outcome of the disputed election finally sealed his victory and sent him to the White House. Today, Bush will make his first trip to Florida as president.

He will arrive in Panama City, where he will speak at a Rotary Club and tour a military base. White House aides bill the stop as just another in a series of visits to push his agenda and press members of Congress in their back yards to support his tax cut. Bush made stops last week in Illinois, the Dakotas and Louisiana.

None of those places, though, is Florida. After the postelection battle that raged for five weeks, ignited emotions and held America in a state of uncertainty, Bush lands in a place where he owes gratitude to those who helped inch him ahead in one of the tightest of elections.

Perhaps mindful of the simmering outrage of Democrats who think the election ended unfairly, the White House chose one of Florida's more conservative areas. It is a district Bush easily carried and is home to some of his most loyal GOP compatriots.

"Between the Panhandle, and the Hispanic community in Dade County, it sure wouldn't hurt for him to say thanks," said Allan Bense, a Republican state legislator who represents the area.

A visit to friendly political environs likely means Bush will encounter fewer protests than if he had gone elsewhere. It also means that whenever Bush decides to travel to Democratic areas of Florida, those trips might attract less attention as well, because they won't be his first to the state as president.

Democrats aren't ignoring today's visit. And they say that rather than simply thanking his supporters, Bush should try to mend fences with those not convinced that his victory was legitimate.

Democrats plan to provide conspicuous reminders, holding rallies today in three Florida cities - Jacksonville, Orlando and West Palm Beach. Democratic Party leaders say they want the president to know he is in a state that has neither healed nor forgotten.

"I am locked in time - it's still Nov. 7 to me," said Rep. Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat who is organizing the Jacksonville rally. "I'm not welcoming him, after he stole the election."

Brown is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has complained that a disproportionate number of African-American votes were not counted because irregularities occurred more frequently in their precincts.

"There has been no healing," said Brown, who wants the president to embrace election reform as a top priority. "My constituents have been disenfranchised. They feel pain. Any time I see them, they let me know."

Bush is landing in Florida just as his brother, Jeb, the governor, has drawn fire from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for not more aggressively addressing concerns about his state's voting system. Mary Frances Berry, the commission's chairwoman, wrote to the governor Thursday, expressing "deep disappointment" with his "statement of priorities" in his annual State of the State address last week. The governor mentioned the election only in the last paragraphs of that speech.

"He did not make voting rights reform as high as a priority as we would have hoped," Berry said in an interview.

Recount back in headlines

Bush also arrives as the recount dispute has returned to the headlines. The Palm Beach Post reported yesterday that according to its review, the "butterfly ballot" design that confused voters into choosing two candidates cost Al Gore 6,607 votes in Palm Beach County. Without the confusing design, the report said, Gore would have picked up more than enough votes to win in Florida - and thus capture the presidency.

Some Floridians who supported Al Gore say that their anger over the outcome of the election has waned and that they remain open-minded about the Bush visit and even look forward to hearing what he has to say.

These Gore backers say they want to shift their energies toward opposing Bush policies they find unpalatable. Some of them say they have grown weary of complaining about chads and dimples and recounts.

Take Cynthia McCauley, a special-education teacher and mother of seven from Panama City who voted for Gore, then filed a lawsuit alleging that Republicans enjoyed easier access to absentee ballots than did Democrats.

Her lawsuit focused on a letter from Jeb Bush to Republicans, inviting them to "vote from the comfort of your home" using an absentee ballot. McCauley's attorneys argued that the letter may have misled voters into thinking it was legal to use an absentee ballot out of convenience, rather than because they could not reach the polls on Election Day.

Absentee ballots in Florida largely favored the Republican. The night Gore delivered his concession speech, McCauley said, she felt resentment toward George W. Bush.

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