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Storm warning

"Storm warning" Continued...

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

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."

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