Campaigning in Florida, Democrats turn up heat
BY LESLEY CLARK AND ERIKA BOLSTAD
He's not in Sheboygan anymore.
Criticized by some Democrats for touring rural cities as his running mate was being bloodied by the Republicans, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards burst into the biggest county in the biggest battleground state Wednesday and came out swinging.
His stop at a Liberty City community center was billed as a healthcare forum -- but from the start Edwards went on the attack, part of the take-no-prisoners approach the campaign has embraced as it criticizes President Bush's leadership on healthcare, the economy and the war in Iraq.
Edwards told a soggy crowd of nearly 400 crammed into Miami's Caleb Center that the Bush administration had no plan for rebuilding Iraq, didn't have enough troops to keep the country safe and misled taxpayers about the cost of combat and reconstruction.
''The last two people in America who think they've made no mistakes in Iraq are George Bush and Dick Cheney,'' Edwards said.
Up the road, in Palm Beach County, where bent palm trees and shattered hotel signs along Interstate 95 still bear witness to Hurricane Frances, John Kerry sought to court Florida's legion of seniors as he bashed Bush as a threat to Social Security and a self-delusional leader who uses taxpayers' money to reward his friends.
The GOP-backed Medicare prescription drug plan that offers coverage to seniors, Kerry said, is ``not really for seniors; it's for the big drug companies.''
But even as he sought to focus on domestic issues, Kerry, too, found himself yanked back to Iraq, suggesting to a supporter who told him that some elderly voters were nervous about ''changing horses'' during a war: ``When your horse is drowning in midstream, it's a good time to shift.''
Republicans retorted with a television ad that suggests Kerry is too fickle to be trusted, underscoring the Bush campaign's repeat rap on the Massachusetts senator: He flip flops, voting for the war in Iraq and now opposing it.
Democrats called on the campaign to take down the ad -- dubbed ''Windsurfing,'' after a favorite Kerry sport -- labeling it ``juvenile.''
The South Florida visit came as the Democratic team ended a self-imposed, hurricane-created political hiatus that all but wiped Kerry off the Florida map.
President Bush, meanwhile, has toured hurricane-ravaged areas three times, scoring television coverage of himself and his widely popular brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, as they distributed water bottles and food to grateful storm victims.
Kerry's campaign on Wednesday expressed confidence that the storms haven't knocked it off track, pointing to enthusiastic crowds it drew during the two-day campaign swing. Also, Edwards will return over the weekend for another visit, as Kerry readies for the campaign's first debate Sept. 30 at the University of Miami.
The visit gave the duo a chance to evoke the ghosts of 2000 in butterfly-ballot-haunted Palm Beach County and an opportunity to court some of the party's critical constituencies: seniors and black and Jewish voters.
Party strategists had hoped the selection of Edwards would help the often-aloof Kerry compete better in the South, and in Liberty City, the mostly black crowd Wednesday warmed to the North Carolina senator's Southern charm and message of ``two Americas.''
''He's straightforward and he can relate to the everyday man and woman,'' said Louise Young, a 68-year-old nursing home worker and union volunteer. ``He seems to be more in touch with what's happening in America.''
SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL
In Palm Beach, Kerry at length defended his record on Israel, seeking to shore up support among traditionally Democratic Jewish voters -- whom the Bush campaign has assiduously wooed, including a May visit to Palm Beach County by Cheney.
Republicans have accused Kerry of waffling on his support for Israel, but Kerry said he has ``never varied once.''
''I get upset when people play games . . . when people try to divide people,'' Kerry said.
``Let me make it clear for you: I believe I can do a better job of making Israel safer. I can do a better job of restoring Israel's strength.''