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National Perspective

It's Just Another State on Bush Tour

Politics: President visits Florida for the first time since 2000 electoral battle. He highlights military housing and nonchalantly sidesteps controversy.

March 13, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — He visited 17 states before he came here, but on his 52nd day in office, President Bush ventured into Florida for the first time as president. He picked a location as geographically, and politically, distant from last year's electoral ruckus as possible.

His schedule, his speeches, his entire demeanor all suggested one question: "What's the big deal?"

And by the time he completed his visit, barely a nod had been given to the 36-day fight over the results of the Florida balloting in the presidential election.

Bush's stop in Florida completed a five-day trip built around lobbying the public to support his proposal for a $1.6-trillion tax cut over 10 years. On Monday, after spending the weekend at his ranch in Texas, the president added a pitch for his proposal to boost military morale by rebuilding base housing.

Bush made no reference in his speeches to the election controversy.

But here in the Panhandle, where Bush took Bay County by a 2-to-1 margin last November, the undercurrent of the election was right on stage with the president at the Marina Civic Center. The large auditorium was filled with several thousand people, brought out by the local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce, who gave him a prolonged standing ovation.

Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Republican from a neighboring district, welcomed Bush "to northwest Florida and the Central Time Zone."

That was a reference to the early television network projections on election night that the vote was wrapped up, then-Vice President Al Gore had won the state, and the national contest was over. As a result, critics said, would-be voters in the Central Time Zone precincts, where polls were still open and Bush's support was great, went home rather than cast their votes for Bush. That led to a vote count so close that the results could not be determined for five weeks.

The president's only comments on the controversy came when he was asked by a reporter about a television advertisement sponsored by Democrats challenging both the Florida results and the tax plan.

"Some of the Democrats here want to keep revoting the election," Bush said. "But if they would listen to America, they would find that Americans want to move forward."

The president spoke with reporters in the crowded living room of an Air Force family whose home at Tyndall Air Force Base had been chosen to demonstrate to the commander-in-chief the difficult living conditions some troops face. The home, a rambler about half a century old, offered tight but neatly kept quarters for Senior Airman Donnie G. Bryant, his wife, Theresa, and their 20-month-old daughter, Chloe.

The airman was clearly reluctant to complain, even though the visit was intended to draw attention to housing needs.

"We still have a few problems with plumbing, but I believe they are starting a project on that," Bryant said. "We've had some plumbers pull in out back."

With the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, joining the president at the air base, Bush interjected: "Particularly after they knew Gen. Ryan was coming."

Bush's route into Panama City from Tyndall Air Force Base, approximately five miles away, took him along a boulevard lined much of the way with clusters of people, many of them waving small American flags and others holding Bush signs from last year's presidential campaign.

Near the civic center where he spoke, about a dozen people staged a quiet protest of the election.

Bush aides had considered offering a presidential nod to the controversy, with brief acknowledgment in his remarks to the fight that eventually handed him the White House. But they decided to ignore it.

"The president is not going to engage in partisan activities," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, referring to various complaints from Democrats about Bush's visit here. "The president believes virtually all Americans, except the most partisan, are looking forward."

But Bob Poe, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Florida, said over the weekend: "President Bush has arrived in Florida just in time to realize that Al Gore actually won the election."

Most of the disputes over ballots took place far to the southeast, in the heavily Democratic counties of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade along the state's Atlantic coast.

The president was greeted at the air base by his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who played a central role in the Bush campaign in the state. They hugged at the foot of the steps leading from Air Force One.

During one visit with about a dozen Air Force enlisted troops, the president introduced the governor and said, "If you've got any problems, write him."

At the civic center, he turned to his younger--and larger--brother, who stood on the stage with him, and said: "What a good man he is! The key to our success is pretty simple; we listen to our mother. And she is still telling us what to do.

"I'm listening about half the time," the president said.

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