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Bush visit rides wave of fuzzy support

It is always good to see the president of the United States. He looks great, better than he does on television, which might be because on TV somebody is usually asking him an unpleasant question.

There were no unpleasant questions at the On Top of the World condominium complex. There were 1,200 supporters and their soggy, wind-twisted umbrellas jammed into the recreation center, waving flags and placards.

I sat behind the white press chain wearing a little orange piece of cardboard that marked me as a local yokel. When the national press bustled in, most of the 1,200 faces turned away from the stage to watch expectantly. They hoped for a Rather or Brokaw, and were disappointed. I felt guilty.

The president walked on stage with Gerald McRaney, the star of the television series "Major Dad," who said pointed things about Clinton and the draft. At least some people in his generation, McRaney said, had "stayed loyal to our country."

"Starting next week," somebody sitting behind me said, "it's Colonel Dad."

The president was introduced by Sidney Colen, the developer of On Top of the World. He said he's never wanted to be president _ but he's always wanted to be that guy at the State of the Union address who gets to shout, "THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES." And so he stepped away from the microphone and he did.

George Bush started right off by announcing his plans to move weather planes to MacDill Air Force Base, "which played a big role in the end of the Cold War." He put in a plug for Sen. Connie Mack and Rep. Bill Young, too.

I guess I figured he'd be a little smoother about it, instead of just blurting out, "Hey! Look at the pork I brought you!" Later on, he accused Clinton of signing on to more federal spending every day of the campaign, and it rang a little hollow.

His speech was fine. Maybe it's the hand of Jim Baker, but the president does a much better job these days of summing up the major themes he has chosen for his campaign: economic growth, school choice, reform of the legal and health-care systems, and term limits for Congress.

Some people thought he made a mistake when he referred to "some of the old geezers" in Congress, considering his retiree audience. But maybe not. Just as "the rich" means anybody who makes more money than you do, a "geezer" is probably anybody who is older.

Bush also lit into Clinton's plans to tax "the rich" to pay for more spending. "His numbers do not add up," the president said, and he is pretty much right _ Clinton's plan is fuzzy. On the other hand, the president's pitch to keep inflation and interest rates low may not have been the best for an audience that, more than most, depends on interest income.

"Yes, I made some mistakes," the president said, "but I believe I've been a good leader." And in that moment you genuinely liked him, because he is a likable man, and you believed that he has sincerely tried.

Still, I left On Top of the World with an uncertain feeling.

The crowd had cheered. It had waved its flags and placards. It had stood to greet the president, and it had chanted, at least for a ragged few seconds, "four more years."

But .

.

. hard to put your finger on it .

.

. it was not as warm, as sustained, as adulatory as I expected, or have seen my Republican friends greet their presidents over the past few years.

It reminded me more of Orlando in September 1989, when Bob Martinez, our troubled Republican governor, opened his re-election campaign, and his party came, and gave money, and said the right things, and applauded, well, politely. He was doomed.

Bill Clinton comes back to the state this week. If you had predicted just after Operation Desert Storm that the Democratic nominee would spend two precious days of the last month of the race in Florida, and the state was winnable for the Democrats, you would have been labeled as crazy.

By this time, I think everybody has enough reasons to vote for or against George Bush. His fate a month from now depends on two things: Whether Perot splits the anti-Bush vote, and whether Bush gives us enough reasons to vote against Clinton.

"Horrors!" my conscience protests. "You aren't advising the president to run a . . . a negative campaign, are you?" Yes.

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