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On Storm, Bush Aims to Be Unlike Dad

August 15, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just as his father did 12 years before, President Bush is flying to Florida to survey the damage wrought by a major hurricane less than three months before facing a hotly contested election.

Republicans hope the parallels end there.

After Hurricane Andrew left thousands homeless in August 1992, the first President Bush's administration was bitterly criticized for moving too slowly to deliver food, water and troops. Although his campaign vastly outspent Bill Clinton, his support ebbed and he was forced to defend what once had been considered home turf, winning by a small margin.

The federal response was noticeably different this week. Even before Hurricane Charley struck, the second Bush White House was poised to act, this time backed by another Bush in the Florida governor's mansion. Hours after Hurricane Charley made landfall, federal aid was flowing, and the president was to arrive this morning.

Everybody this time also was aware of the political stakes: Florida's 27 electoral votes are up for grabs, with the latest survey giving Democratic challenger John F. Kerry a 7-point lead in the state that decided the 2000 election by 537 votes.

For a president whose approach often seems designed to avoid the pitfalls as well as the fate of his father -- from the war in Iraq to the economy -- the response to Hurricane Charley follows the same pattern.

As emergency crews and National Guard troops swooped in to help residents across the state, the start of the cleanup Saturday brought a public relations effort apparently designed to show that history would not be repeated. President Bush, brother Jeb Bush -- Florida's governor and the president's state campaign chairman -- and other state Republicans showered Floridians with promises, assurances and lists of toll-free numbers they could call for help.

"While this is a day of complete devastation and real tragedy, and there's a lot of sadness in people's hearts right now, I'm absolutely convinced that, in a shorter period of time than we experienced in Hurricane Andrew, people's hopes will be lifted," Gov. Bush said.

At the same time, the state's lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, a Republican and a former state senator from Orlando, addressed reporters in her hometown. "We were better prepared than we've ever been before," she said. Jeb Bush, as a resident of Miami in 1992 and a Florida director for his father's reelection campaign, witnessed firsthand the personal and political fallout of the earlier storm.

While the governor and his lieutenant addressed televised news conferences in Punta Gorda, the site of the worst devastation, and elsewhere, the governor's brother told those at a Sioux City, Iowa, campaign rally of his plan to visit Florida for the second time in a week. The president rolled through the Panhandle on his "Heart and Soul" bus tour Tuesday.

"I'm going to travel down to Florida to visit with those whose lives have been hurt by Hurricane Charley," the president said. "I just want them to know that our federal government is responding quickly."

Kerry, too, kept his eye on the situation in Florida -- where he and supporters were spending millions of dollars to defeat Bush. But on Saturday, while campaigning in Oregon, he asked his supporters in Florida to volunteer in disaster relief efforts.

Kerry, who travels with a full Secret Service detail and a press corps, said he had no immediate plans to visit the state. "For the moment, our focus is on all of the police and response personnel necessary not being diverted from a visitor, and really focusing on the recovery itself," he said.

Kerry aides said he was reconsidering plans to travel to the state later this week.

The focus of Saturday's public events was on ensuring that help found its way to thousands left homeless and without basic necessities. But Florida political insiders said the realities of the looming election were impossible to ignore.

Although Andrew was at the time the largest natural disaster to hit the country, Hurricane Charley was in many ways more of a political challenge.

Andrew's wrath was isolated to a smaller area in a heavily Democratic part of the state. Charley struck southwest Florida, a fast-growing and heavily Republican region, and then cut a swath along Interstate 4 from conservative Polk County through suburban Osceola County, Orlando and then across Daytona Beach -- a region considered crucial for the president's reelection.

Bush plans an early-morning visit today to Florida, with a stop in Punta Gorda.

Another political complication is that the storm could prove to be a major distraction from the state's Aug. 31 primary election for the U.S. Senate, a race in which both parties feature competitive and crowded contests among candidates wanting to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.

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