PALM BEACH, Fla. - Every elected official knows that voter sentiment can shift with even the slightest of political winds. For George W. Bush and John Kerry, the question is: What happens to those voter sentiments after back-to-back hurricanes?
The answer to that question could decide who spends the next four years in the White House. Political pundits widely believe that Florida will once again determine the outcome of the presidential race. But while much of the nation will be voting on issues such as the economy and the war on terror, Hurricanes Charley and Frances will weigh heavily in a state that went for President Bush by just 537 votes in 2000.
In other words, predicting the outcome in Florida this year is about as dicey as predicting the path of a storm.
Though Frances came ashore on Sept. 5 as a much-weakened Category 2 storm, her slow, wet march across the state added as much as $4 billion in insured damages to the estimated $7 billion tab for cleaning up after Charley. From Palm Beach on the east coast to Tampa on the west, city streets were left waist-high in floodwaters. Winds in excess of 105 mph destroyed thousands of homes, adding to the 30,000 families left homeless by last month's more violent storm. Some 3 million Floridians learned they could be without power for as much as a week, and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson warned that the year's entire grapefruit crop might be lost.
With summer temperatures soaring into the mid-90s in Frances's wake, water and ice became precious commodities in even the most-posh beachfront communities. Residents lined up for hours outside distribution centers operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the National Guard was called in to deal with flaring tempers and line-jumpers.
"This is ridiculous," groused a middle-aged man waiting in his Toyota outside a Palm Beach County Home Depot store that was designated as a FEMA distribution point. "They say we can only get two bags of ice. I've got a family of five; how long is that going to last me? I'll have to be right back here tomorrow, running all the gas out of my car. Have you seen the lines at the gas station? I need to be fixing my roof, but I'm spending all my time waiting in lines, waiting for handouts. I feel like a beggar. "
Others begged to differ. A few cars ahead of the grumbler, who refused to give his name, Kathy Smith said she was grateful for the help from Uncle Sam. "I think they're amazingly well-organized," she said as she eyed FEMA workers distributing water by the case. "I mean, they're still helping out with Charley on the west coast, but they've got thousands of people over here, too. I don't know what we'd do without them."
For President Bush, reelection may hinge on how many Floridians agree with Ms. Smith-and how many side with the grumbler. With 2,700 FEMA personnel mobilized in Florida after Hurricane Frances, the federal response was difficult not to notice. Anticipating an even larger storm, FEMA dispatched 2.6 million gallons of water and 7.3 million pounds of ice to the latest hurricane zone. Despite roadways clogged by storm debris and residents returning from temporary exile, hundreds of relief stations were up and running within hours after Frances blew through.
If federal relief workers were hard to miss on the ground, their boss was even harder to miss on the airwaves. Accompanied by a crush of television reporters, President Bush surveyed hard-hit Port St. Lucie on Wednesday, followed by a visit to Miami's National Hurricane Center, where weary meteorologists were keeping an eye on Hurricane Ivan hundreds of miles to the south.
The president flew into Florida with a just-signed $2 billion emergency appropriations bill he had pushed through Congress the night before-and with promises that even more money was on the way. "Once again, Florida has faced the devastation of a hurricane, and once again the people of Florida are showing their character," Mr. Bush told a bank of television cameras at the National Hurricane Center. "I want the people of Florida to know the federal government is doing everything we can to help you."
The Sept. 8 visit was the president's third hurricane-related stop in Florida in recent weeks. With residents' attention riveted by the storms, President Bush's most recent forays received far more statewide media coverage than his previous two dozen visits, giving him the equivalent of millions of dollars in free advertising.
Despite the desperately needed federal dollars, many Democrats were unhappy with the president's much-publicized largesse. "I find it deeply disturbing that President Bush may use his trip to survey the damage of Hurricane Frances as a photo opportunity-touting a $2 billion aid package that has already been promised to Florida as a result of Hurricane Charley," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat.
Scott Maddox, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, admitted the Bush visits put Democrats at a "decided disadvantage" because their own candidates were unable to campaign in the Sunshine State while Mr. Bush could fly around acting presidential. Indeed, despite the state's must-win status, John Kerry has not campaigned in Florida since accepting the Democratic nomination on July 29. Not that he hasn't tried: In August Mr. Kerry had to cancel a rally in Orlando after Hurricane Charley pounded Central Florida. The event was rescheduled for last week, only to be postponed again by Hurricane Frances. Now the rally is unlikely to happen before late September because scheduling it any earlier might look insensitive to voters still reeling from nature's one-two punch.
"If John Kerry were to go into these storm-damaged areas, it would look explicitly political," explained Benjamin Bishin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami. "The hurricanes may shut him out to some degree because he can't look like he's playing politics or taking advantage of a tragic situation."
President Bush, on the other hand, "can go in, look concerned, and initiate executive action to send funding there. . . . His greatest opportunity is simply that he can be visible, particularly in the I-4 corridor [of Central Florida], where most swing voters live-and coincidentally, where most of the damage was."
Even with Mr. Kerry temporarily on the sidelines, President Bush can hardly take Florida for granted. If he stands to gain politically from a well-coordinated federal response to the hurricanes, he could just as well feel voters' wrath if relief efforts are deemed insufficient. "They make me wait forever, then I'm supposed to vote for them because they gave me a bag of ice?" said Ben Klein as he waited outside the Palm Beach Home Depot. "If this is a sign of how they run the White House, I'm more worried than ever."
Among the Home Depot crowd-and among Floridians at large-that opinion seemed to be in the minority, however. A newspaper poll conducted shortly after Hurricane Charley found 84 percent of registered voters called state and federal relief efforts either "good" or "excellent," and Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, has seen his popularity soar. With FEMA promising an even bigger mobilization for Hurricane Frances, approval ratings are likely to remain high.
For President Bush, the biggest challenge may simply be turning out his supporters in the storm-ravaged state. Of the eight coastal counties hardest hit by the two hurricanes, six voted Republican in 2000. Mr. Bush can ill afford any erosion among his core supporters who are too busy re-roofing their homes to bother getting out to the polls.
Though Mr. Bishin believes turnout will be generally unaffected by a storm that hit 60 days before the election, many water-logged Floridians can't imagine where they'll be-or how they'll vote-on Nov. 2.
"I appreciate what they're doing, and I'm amazed by the logistics," said Ms. Smith as she neared the front of the FEMA distribution line in Palm Beach. "Will it affect my vote? Who knows? At this point I don't even know if I'll bother. I can't stand to think about waiting in another line."