Hurricanes scramble the Bush-Kerry race in Fla.

Forecast: Stormy weather has been a factor, campaign officials say, but as residents struggle to recover, no one is certain which way the wind will blow in November.

Election 2004

September 24, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. CLOUD, Fla. - In 2000, the symbol of Florida's dead-even presidential vote was the disputed butterfly ballot. This year, it could be the blue tarp.

The hurricanes that ripped through the state left thousands of homes with damaged roofs, now covered by blue plastic while owners await repairs.

The storms also left behind a new dividing line in Florida politics.

On one side are those traumatized by the disasters. Still dealing with the devastation, or awaiting the next hit, they haven't even begun to think about Bush vs. Kerry. On the other side are those who have either been spared by Mother Nature, have recovered already or had their opinions reshaped by the experience.

With yet another hurricane - the fourth this season - projected to strike Florida's east coast this weekend, the weather is clearly a factor in the campaign.

The first three storms tore largely into parts of the state where President Bush is strongest, including the conservative Panhandle region, which Hurricane Ivan blasted last week. Whether that ends up being an advantage or a problem for Bush isn't entirely clear.

Democrat John Kerry's base in South Florida has been spared a direct hit so far. Kerry aides are hoping he can come out of that part of the state with an even bigger cushion than Al Gore built last time, enough to offset Bush's advantage in the rest of Florida.

New poll numbers

Any edge, even a tiny one, could be crucial. Florida decided the presidency in 2000, when Bush was awarded a 537-vote victory over Gore. Once again this year, it is the most evenly divided big state in the nation, with more electoral votes than any other battleground state.

Each campaign says its internal polls give its man a small advantage in Florida.

"It's a tough state, a battleground state," said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a longtime Bush political associate and senior adviser to the president's campaign. "It's going to be difficult for either side to hold a lead."

A new Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll released last night showed the race in a statistical dead heat. The statewide survey, completed Wednesday, put Bush at 49 percent and Kerry at 46 percent among likely voters. Independent candidate Ralph Nader, who recently earned a spot on the Florida ballot, got 2 percent in the poll, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Politicians in both parties say that Bush, who has lavished attention on the state from the earliest days of his presidency, benefited from being able to demonstrate concern for Florida's plight. He made personal visits after each hurricane and has proposed billions of dollars in federal disaster relief for storm victims.

"Being able to come down and offer unlimited aid - of course, it was a help to him," said Harry L. Shorstein, the state attorney in Jacksonville and a Kerry supporter.

Kerry, whose official duties don't offer such opportunities, has largely stayed away. His two days of stops in the state this week were his first Florida campaign events since July, though he did make a brief storm-damage visit last month.

No weather gauge

Officials of both campaigns concede that there's no precedent for gauging the impact of three - or more - hurricanes on a presidential contest in a single state. They say they expect it to influence the result on Election Day, but exactly how they can't say.

Already, the short-term effects have been considerable.

"This state is just sort of waking up from a monthlong hiatus from politics," said Tom Shea, the Kerry campaign manager in Florida. "It's almost as if the state of play in the race was frozen on the day Charley hit Punta Gorda" in mid-August.

More than a month after the first hurricane cut across Central Florida, where close elections in the state are typically decided, many communities have yet to recover.

Here in Osceola County, which went Democratic in the last presidential election for the first time since World War II, subdivisions remain jumbles of downed tree limbs, ruined roofs and plywood-patched window and door openings.

"People are so busy with the cleanup. They are just worried about their day-to-day lives at this point," said Penny Kersey, 45, assistant manager of a grocery store in St. Cloud. "To tell you the truth, I don't think their focus is going to be on anything other than these storms until after the hurricane season. By then, the election will be over."

The other night, at a raucous rally in downtown Orlando with 8,000 supporters, Kerry was joined by running mate John Edwards, who called Florida "ground zero, where we're going to elect the next president of the United States." The front-page headline in the next morning's Orlando Sentinel: "Ready or Not, Election Roars Back."

Divided attention

Rebecca Corbin, 37, isn't ready. She voted for Gore in 2000 but is "very undecided" now. She's still waiting for roof repair in St. Cloud, an Orlando suburb, which could take another month.

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