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Politics Off Radar in Battered-Ground State

After weathering two storms and bracing for a third, Florida has more pressing concerns. But Bush's handling of the crisis could decide votes.

September 10, 2004|John M. Glionna and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

LAKE WALES, Fla. — A weary Eva Stines is troubled these days.

Her house was demolished by the double punch of two successive hurricanes that hit this central Florida town in the last month -- and a third monster Atlantic storm may be headed her way next week.

With all that, she isn't thinking about: the 2004 presidential campaign, saying "politics is the last thing on everybody's mind right now."

But politics is certainly on the minds of Democrats and Republicans. They know that the voting outcome in this crucial state could hinge on how these disasters are handled in the weeks leading up to the election.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricanes and politics -- A story in Friday's Section A about how President Bush's response to the spate of hurricanes in Florida could affect the outcome of the November election incorrectly stated that President George H.W. Bush lost the state in the 1992 vote. He defeated Bill Clinton by a narrow margin.

In 2000, President Bush beat Democrat Al Gore by only 537 votes in Florida. And with 27 electoral votes, 10% of the total needed to win the White House, the state once again remains critical in 2004.

For Bush, it's essential to deliver much-needed relief services, so as not to repeat 1992, when his father lost the state after being slow to respond to Hurricane Andrew.

Bush has pledged several billion in relief money. And besides the normal disaster relief workers, dispatched about 150 Environmental Protection Agency staffers to do such things as hand out pamphlets regarding insurance. The move prompted union representatives to complain they were sent to Florida to polish the administration's image.

"We are using senior people to hand out pamphlets and that is just an incredible misuse of these top professionals," said Wes Wilson, a Denver-based EPA engineer, who said he was speaking in his capacity as a union legislative advocate. "You wouldn't take a surgeon at a VA hospital and have him handing out pamphlets,"

But those kind of efforts seem to be working. So far, the Bush administration has received good grades from residents, while the Kerry campaign has had to keep its distance so it doesn't appear to be capitalizing on the disasters.

Still, the storms did hit hardest in core Republican counties that dominate central Florida and both coasts. And normally reliable conservative voters -- as well as some Democrats -- might be too caught up with their losses to even show up at the polls, experts say.

"Florida is reeling from natural events that for some will take months, even years, to recover from -- no electricity, a messy cleanup, job losses. It's a chaotic time," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "To me, it's just inconceivable that this disaster is not going to result in some reduction in the voter turnout in November."

Bush made a highly visible sweep through Florida on Wednesday, pledging at least $2 billion in aid and immediate attention from both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

Meanwhile, Democratic advisors acknowledge that the storm's aftermath has stalled Kerry's campaign here, forcing him to cancel several planned visits for fear of appearing as though he were trying to politically exploit the disasters.

"It makes it very difficult," said Scott Maddox, Florida's Democratic Party chairman. "It puts the campaign on hold with less than 60 days to go in the election."

Kerry has not campaigned in Florida since accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in late July. Bush's most recent Florida trip was his 27th visit to the state since being elected. But some experts say those visits have the potential to spell trouble for the president.

"These presidential visits to Florida in the wake of these storms could backfire on the president in the months ahead," said deHaven-Smith. "If people believe he can straighten out all their problems resulting from the hurricanes and then later find out he can't, they might hold him partially responsible."

Five days after Hurricane Frances made landfall early Sunday along the state's south Atlantic coast, slightly fewer than 1 million people remained without power amid a stubborn outage spread across 47 of the state's 67 counties

Many residents are only now assessing their wind and water damage and some frustrated homeowners are finding that their insurance co-payments are far too high to get any repairs done. Others are anxiously calling FEMA inspectors to see what immediate help they can get.

"So far, the reaction to the aid effort has been mixed," said Craigon Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the state emergency operations center in the capital city of Tallahassee. "Some people are pleasantly surprised that help has come so fast and others are frustrated that none has come at all."

Businesses are also hurting, especially the state's billion-dollar citrus industry.

While Hurricane Charley damaged 20% of the state's orange crop, Frances hit both oranges and grapefruit.

"Some estimates have 90% of the grapefruit lying on the ground beneath the trees," said Walt Lincer, a vice president for sales and marketing for Florida's Natural Growers, a cooperative based in Lake Wales.

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