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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Bush Picks Orlando For Campaign Kickoff
By Tamara Lytle | Washington Bureau Chief
March 13, 2004
WASHINGTON -- President Bush will travel to Orlando next weekend for his first major campaign rally, underscoring how important Central Florida is in winning the White House.
The noon rally, expected to draw 12,000 supporters to the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday, will cap a week in which Bush and other administration officials barnstorm the country to focus on the first anniversary of the war in Iraq and on the global battle against terrorism.
The message: The Iraq campaign and the anti-terror war are getting results.
But on Saturday, it will be all about keeping the commander-in-chief in office for another four years.
"This stop is the official kickoff of his campaign -- that probably tells you something about the frequency of his future visits and the importance of the I-4 corridor," said Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty, one of the phalanx of GOP officials who will accompany the president at the rally. "I think he'll be the president next door."
Florida -- the state whose 2000 vote gave Bush his first term in the White House -- is the focal point of both the president and Democrat John Kerry.
And in the eight-month campaign to the Nov. 2 election, the state will be a premier battleground.
The Interstate 4 corridor, stretching from Tampa to Daytona Beach, is the key swing area in a key swing state. The region is a buffer between heavily Republican North Florida and strongly Democratic southeast Florida.
"You start looking at the math and I-4 is the center of the center of presidential politics," said Bob Poe, a former Democratic state chairman.
Kerry also made Orlando his first campaign appearance after effectively securing the Democratic presidential nomination in "Super Tuesday" voting March 2. That rally drew several hundred supporters, but only about 300 were allowed inside the cramped theater where he spoke.
Central Floridians have already been peppered with television ads from both campaigns and independent groups that support them. This week, the Bush campaign unleashed its first negative TV ads against Kerry, and Kerry is firing back in an ad set to air today.
Drew Lanier, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said the negative ads work best on moderates -- and the Orlando region has many of those swing voters.
"The ground is going to run red with blood," Lanier said. "The campaign is already negative, and it's only going to get worse. It's going to be a bare-knuckles fight."
Both Bush and Kerry are likely to be in Florida frequently during the campaign -- each stressing the same issues at the heart of the race, the economy and foreign policy.
Bush is pushing his leadership qualities, tax cuts and handling of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and subsequent war in Iraq. Kerry is stressing the loss of American jobs during Bush's term and the fact that Bush justified attacking Iraq based on a program of weapons of mass destruction that has not been found since the end of the war.
Lance deHaven-Smith, professor of public administration at Florida State University, noted that Bush had a difficult race in Central Florida four years ago, including a loss to Democrat Al Gore in Orange County.
"Given how the election went in 2000, he knows the soft spot in his candidacy was in Central Florida," deHaven-Smith said.
But since then, the region's Hispanic population has boomed. DeHaven-Smith said economics, war and social issues will be important to Hispanic voters, including the many Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in Central Florida.
Crotty said those voters are clearly up for grabs.
Mark Schlueb and Mark Silva of the Sentinel staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.