- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

MIAMI — Four hurricanes have temporarily blown politics off the map in one of the most contested states in the Nov. 2 general election.

Since the hurricanes began pounding Florida last month, the campaigns of President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, have suffered as Floridians focused on where the heavy winds would spin — not the daily spin of the message makers.

Mr. Bush has used the power of the presidency to continue making appearances statewide, albeit more as “consoler in chief” than a candidate running for re-election. But his campaign message has been weakened. Storm coverage in the state’s leading television markets, such as Orlando and Miami, pre-empted the broadcast of his Sept. 2 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention in New York City.

The Kerry campaign has been hit even harder. The senator from Massachusetts steered clear of the weather-ravaged state for nearly two months, making his first campaign appearance last week since late July.

Both sides realize that campaigning in a state battered by four hurricanes could do more harm than good.

“The first priority for the people of Florida is recovering from the devastating effects of the hurricanes,” Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said. “Obviously, recovering from the hurricanes takes precedence over politics.”

A Kerry pollster agreed.

“It’s been very, very difficult down there, both because the public is so preoccupied with the hurricanes and because of the practical matter: So many Floridians have not been home, or if they have been home, they haven’t been accessible because of electricity and other problems,” Tom Kiley said during a conference call with reporters last week.

The hurricanes have caused an estimated $25 billion in damage and left nearly 75 Floridians dead. 1.6 million homes and businesses are still without power.

On the political map, both Republicans and Democrats have suffered. Florida’s west coast and Panhandle were hammered by Charley and Ivan, the Democratic regions along the Atlantic Ocean were hit hard by Jeanne and Frances.

Polls have been spotty for more than a month, mainly because it has been difficult to reach residents over a three-day period, as most surveys are conducted. The latest Gallup poll, completed more than a week ago, had Mr. Bush ahead in the presidential race by three points, 49 percent to 46 percent.

Mr. Bush has made several trips to hurricane-damaged areas, where he has visited with residents and used photo opportunities to help distribute ice and food to displaced homeowners. Mr. Kerry made a brief stopover after Hurricane Charley to visit victims and assess damage.

The president also has been able to employ his hold on federal purse strings. On Monday, he asked Congress to appropriate more than $7.1 billion to help Florida and other Southeastern states recover from the devastation. That was his third request for storm aid, bringing the total funding to $12.2 billion.

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Floridians have rightly focused on their safety, but as the election nears, they will begin to focus on the candidates and the issues.

“People are now starting to turn their focus back to the election, and on Thursday night they’re going to get an up-close and personal look at the candidates,” Mr. Singer said about the first debate between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry tomorrow. “We intend to spend a considerable amount of time in Florida as we get closer to the election, talking directly to voters and detailing what John Kerry is going to do to get the country going in the right direction.”

State officials say they will be ready for the Nov. 2 election.

Alia Faraj, spokeswoman the Department of State, which oversees elections, said officials are working hard to make contingency plans for Floridians, some of whom may not be able to vote in their own precincts.

Hurricane Charley displaced some voters right before the Aug. 30 primaries, forcing them to move to other polling places.

“In Charlotte County, what they did is they combined polling places, where we had several different precincts under one building — a huge church,” Miss Faraj said. “Voters came in and still voted in their very specific precincts using the ballot on which they would cast their vote if they were in that precinct.

“It worked smoothly, it worked flawlessly. As a matter of fact, I think they liked it a lot. It was great model,” she said.

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