- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — President Bush will tour hurricane damage in Florida today on a trip that, while considered official White House business, also provides political opportunities in a state he barely won in 2000.

“Many lives have been affected by this hurricane,” he told a campaign rally here. “I know you join me in sending our prayers to those people who look for solace and help.”

By declaring the state a federal disaster area and showing up with millions of dollars for clean-up and reconstruction, Mr. Bush is playing a role unavailable to Sen. John Kerry — that of benefactor to the very voters who may once again decide the presidency.

But the White House was careful to play up the official nature of Mr. Bush’s trip.

“This is an opportunity for him to take a first-hand look at the damage and make sure that those who’ve been affected by the hurricane will get the help they need,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

A Bush campaign official shrugged off suggestions of the trip paying political dividends and pointed out that people make judgments about the way the president does his job every day. These judgments occur at a variety of official White House functions that also might pay political dividends, including visits to military bases.

Mr. Kerry did express his “heartfelt sympathies” to millions of Floridians affected by the storm.

“In an instant, they have lost loved ones and seen everything they have worked for swept away. Now the difficult work of recovery begins. We offer our full support to the president and governor as the people of Florida rebuild their communities and their lives,” Mr. Kerry said.

First lady Laura Bush was originally scheduled to visit Florida tomorrow, but canceled those plans on Friday because of Hurricane Charley.

Mr. Bush was in Florida just five days ago, kicking off a campaign swing mocking Mr. Kerry’s stance on Iraq and the broader war on terrorism. During a visit to Pensacola, he ridiculed the Democratic presidential nominee for finally agreeing with Operation Iraqi Freedom after earlier describing himself as an anti-war candidate.

The next day, Mr. Bush kept up the offensive by slamming Mr. Kerry for promising to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq within six months of taking office. The president said telegraphing the timetable to the enemy jeopardizes the mission.

On Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney led the attack by savaging Mr. Kerry’s call for a “more sensitive war on terror.” He said there was nothing sensitive about Islamic extremists who cut off the heads of their victims.

By Friday, the White House was taking Mr. Kerry to task for criticizing the president’s decision to wait five minutes before responding to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Bush aides pointed out that Mr. Kerry himself had professed bewilderment upon learning of the attacks.

“The challenge I think that the Kerry campaign is facing is that their ads and their convention — trying to portray Kerry as a strong commander-in-chief — are on a daily basis rebutted by what John Kerry says and John Kerry does and what the American people see on the evening news and in the newspapers,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said

The Kerry campaign countered with a memo arguing that the Bush-Cheney offensive had backfired.

“George Bush and Dick Cheney did more damage this week to their campaign than any opponent or news story could ever do by employing shrill attacks and overtly misleading rhetoric,” the memo says. “Bush and Cheney showed themselves to be so desperate to hold onto power that they say or do anything to cover up the fact that they have no idea of what they would do if re-elected.”

Kerry officials pointed to a Pew Research poll that shows Mr. Kerry beating the president on economic issues by a margin of 52 percent to 37 percent. In March, Mr. Kerry was leading 44 percent to 39 percent on the economy.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign, said the same poll showed Mr. Bush widening his lead over Mr. Kerry on the issue of who is a strong leader. Mr. Bush leads in this category by 23 points, up from 19 points in May.

Meanwhile, Gallup has released a poll showing the president’s approval rating up to 51 percent.

“No president that has been at or above 50 percent at this point in an election year has lost,” Mr. Dowd added. “That is a good sign for the president’s re-election.”

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