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Bush Vows to Win Over Undecided Florida Voters

Campaign: State is among the most competitive in the presidential race. The Republican nominee targets seniors during a two-day visit.


CLEARWATER, Fla. — Texas Gov. George W. Bush set off Monday on a two-day swing through Florida to shore up support in a state no longer seen as a sure victory for the Republican presidential nominee.

Bush--on his ninth trip to a state that's crucial to his strategy for winning the White House--held a solid lead in Florida until recently.

Private Democratic polls, however, now show him losing his lead over his rival, Vice President Al Gore. And with Bush running even or just behind the Democratic nominee in national polls, Florida, the fourth-most populous state, has turned into one of the most hard-fought battlegrounds in the race. Gore has campaigned there eight times over the last six months.

At stops in Clearwater and West Palm Beach on Monday, Bush appealed to the state's outsize constituency of retirees, touting his prescription drug and Social Security plans. He urged seniors to beware of Democratic "scare tactics."

"When I look you in the eye and say prescription drugs for seniors is a priority of mine, I'm a plain-spoken enough fellow to mean it," he told residents of a condominium complex for the elderly here on the Gulf Coast.

Bush's visit to Florida, which ends today with a stop in Orlando, kicks off a weeklong effort to show he's a "different kind of Republican," said Karen Hughes, his communications director.

He will stress health care, the environment and education, issues typically associated with Democrats, as he travels from Florida to Missouri, Washington, California and New Mexico, she said.

But strategically Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, is the most significant stop.

It's the biggest state that both Bush and Gore have a good shot at winning. Of the larger ones, California and New York lean strongly toward Gore, and Texas is an easy win for Bush.

"I'm going to carry Florida," Bush said Monday when he arrived at the St. Petersburg airport. "The reason why is that I've got real plans for real people."

With his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bush headed to Clearwater to meet seniors at a sprawling condo complex, where several hundred seniors in an auditorium greeted him with a standing ovation.

As he introduced his brother, the Florida governor hammered Gore and President Clinton for not providing prescription drug coverage to the elderly during their nearly eight years in office.

"The Clinton-Gore administration would rather fight and win political victories than solve problems," Jeb Bush told the crowd.

He introduced his brother as the "one man that can change the culture of Washington, bring civility back to Washington."

The Texas governor, standing in shirt sleeves with a microphone in hand, urged the seniors to ignore Democratic attacks on his plan to let young Americans invest part of their Social Security savings in the stock market.

"They'll be saying, 'You know, if George W. becomes the president, he's going to take away your Social Security check.' Don't believe them," he said.

He also reminded them that his $198-billion plan to overhaul Medicare includes $48 billion to provide prescription drugs over four years to low-income seniors.

"We're not going to have a society where some go without because they can't afford prescription drugs--that horrible choice between food and drugs," Bush said. "No, we're too compassionate a nation. Our prosperity must have a purpose, and one of the purposes is to help seniors."

Bush fielded questions for half an hour from the friendly crowd. One man beseeched him, "I want you to bring dignity back into the Oval Office."

Once the applause died down, Bush replied, "I'm sorry you have to say that. But that's the pledge I've made, and that's a pledge I'm going to keep."

In a lengthy answer to a question about immigration, Bush vowed to "keep the pressure on Fidel Castro until he frees the country," a stand popular with Florida's Cuban American voters. He told reporters later that he would have tried to avoid shaking Castro's hand as Clinton did last week at a United Nations summit.

When Bush finished talking to the seniors, retired teacher Rose Marie DeCuzzi was among those applauding.

"He was dynamite," she said. But her husband, James, a retired New York City subway car inspector, said he couldn't tell the difference between Gore's prescription drug plan and Bush's. He's not the only one.

"I think the public is very confused as to exactly what the Republican plan is and what the Democratic plan is," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.). "They know the Democratic plan costs more, but does that mean it's a better plan?"

Later, as Bush flew to West Palm Beach to raise $500,000 for the Florida Republican Party, his campaign responded to a report in Vanity Fair magazine that Bush may suffer from dyslexia. "In the case of this story, fiction is stranger than words," Hughes told reporters on the plane.

For years, Republicans have been gaining ground in Florida. Since 1968, it has supported a Democrat only twice in presidential elections: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1996.

Experts agree, though, that Florida's Republican strength has been overstated; Democrats outnumber Republicans, 45% to 40%, among Florida's 8 million registered voters, with the rest independents.

Bush "has to get into the retirement sections of Florida," said Lance DeHazen-Smith, the associate director of the Florida Institute of Government, a research center. "He has to be very visible to the senior moderate Republicans on the health care issue and prescription medication."


Times staff writer Dana Calvo contributed to this story.

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