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CAMPAIGN 2000

Bush, Gore Sprint as the Race Comes Down to the Wire

Republicans: The Texas governor, appearing upbeat as he urgently presses his message, spends all day in Florida. Several GOP heavy-hitters join him to make their case.

November 06, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — George W. Bush stormed across Florida on Sunday as election day loomed, radiating equal parts optimism and urgency and paring his campaign message down to its essence.

"We're traveling your big state today with one message: Let's get out the vote," he declared at an airport rally as the sun beat down and the crowd cheered and the music blasted and the pompons waved. "The voters are there. Let's turn them out."

By Sunday morning, crunch-time signs had appeared on the Bush campaign, principally that he devoted a full day to this crucial, tossup state that could very well determine the election on Tuesday. Senior advisors and close friends flew in from Austin, Texas, to join the governor in the final days. The campaign plane was stuffed to capacity with more journalists and more dignitaries and more Secret Service types than ever.

Bush campaign communications director Karen Hughes, her voice hijacked by fatigue and flu, stood on the airport runway popping throat lozenges and croaking analysis, as tape recorders rolled and cameras whirred.

"We want to win this state, and it is competitive," she crackled as she strove to explain why Bush was spending Sunday in a Republican-leaning state that should be his. "We feel we are ahead here. . . . We know the vice president is coming back here, and we want to ensure that we carry Florida. We're upbeat."

Big-gun Republicans appeared with the presidential candidate at every stop, and Bush threaded the day with bursts of nostalgia, an unusual emotion for a candidate who has spent the last 20 months looking ahead, not back.

Sunday began with church services in Jacksonville, Fla.--"No politics," he told reporters, "just prayer and reflection"--then a misty-eyed Bush met with the Rev. Billy Graham, the man he said launched him "on faith's journey."

"I don't endorse candidates," the evangelist told reporters, "but I've come as close to it, I guess, now as any time in my life, because I think it's extremely important. . . . I've already voted. I'll just let you guess who I voted for."

After his private breakfast meeting with Graham, Bush said that it was "comforting to be with a close friend and to have coffee and prayer as we begin the final stretch of the campaign to be the president."

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is being treated for prostate cancer, flew down to this retirement haven to campaign for Bush all weekend long. After the rally in West Palm Beach, as the candidate shook hands and posed for pictures, Giuliani described himself as Bush's secret weapon.

"Half my city lives here now," he cracked, when asked how a representative of the Big Apple could possibly be effective in Citrus Central. After stumping Saturday at a synagogue, a campaign office and a satellite police station, Giuliani said: "I felt like I was in one of the five boroughs. In that way, I think I can be somewhat helpful."

Bush and Democratic rival Al Gore can use all the help they can get here. Along with Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Bush visited Saturday, Florida could very well decide the next tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"It's an important state. . . . I'm here to do everything that I can to make sure that everybody comes out and votes in Florida," Giuliani said.

The race is tight, but Bush appeared optimistic. So did Jeb Bush, Florida's governor, a fervent family campaigner and a man Bush describes as "my big, little brother."

Midafternoon in a Miami football field, Jeb Bush summed up in Spanish his brother's chances in Florida: "Si la Florida va con George, va a ser el proximo presidente de los Estados Unidos!" ("If Florida goes with George, he will be the next president of the United States!")

For the sake of family tranquillity, the Florida governor had better be right in his presidential prediction. For as the presidential candidate recounted at an evening rally in Tampa: "I called [Jeb] the other day, just to let him know that the turkey at Thanksgiving might be a little chilly if things don't work out, if you know what I mean."

But on this day, the governor waxed optimistic, telling crowds that he trusts his little brother. "When he looked me in the eye and said, 'Florida's going to be Bush-Cheney country,' I believe him," Bush said in Jacksonville.

Sunday was an all-Florida day, a situation that few would have predicted early in the campaign. But with two days to go before the election, most analyses show the state a tossup. Vice President Gore and running mate Joseph I. Lieberman have assiduously wooed senior voters here and will return today.

So the Texan spent his penultimate campaign day circling the state, from Jacksonville to West Palm Beach, Miami to Tampa and wrapping it up with a late-night stop in Orlando.

At an airport rally and stadium event, Bush touted the basic themes that have powered him across the country: strengthening the military and Social Security, reforming education and the Medicare system, cutting taxes.

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