A chance to see the debut of the freshly minted Democratic presidential ticket drew a roaring crowd of thousands to a late night rally Wednesday.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and his newly picked running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, swept into the Coliseum in St. Petersburg, hugging and pumping their fists as Bruce Springsteen's Land of Hope and Dreams boomed.
"We're thrilled to be here in the Tampa Bay area," Kerry said. "This is where Teddy Roosevelt trained the Rough Riders. I brought my own Rough Rider from North Carolina. His name is John Edwards."
The St. Petersburg Police Department generously estimated the crowd at nearly 10,000. Only about 2,000 got into the historic Coliseum for the event, which started about 10 p.m. and lasted about 45 minutes. After the rally, Kerry and Edwards went outside to greet supporters.
Activists said the large crowd for an event announced less than 24 hours earlier was testament to how energized Democrats are four months before the election. Even waiting in line for hours did little to mute the enthusiasm many Democrats expressed for their presidential ticket _ and hostility to President Bush.
"In one term, the Bush administration has destroyed what it has taken a lifetime to build in this country," said Lawrence Gurley, a retired biochemist who drove an hour from his home near Venice and until two years ago was a Republican. "John Kerry and John Edwards give me hope of getting my country back. It has been taken away from us."
Across from the snaking line of Democrats, about 100 Bush supporters wielded signs and traded partisan chants with those waiting to enter the Coliseum.
Inside, Edwards hailed his former rival's leadership, service in Vietnam and his record fighting to improve America.
"One thing you can take to the bank: When he is president of the United States, every single day that he is in the White House he will tell the American people the truth. . . . This is America, where everything is possible. We need John Kerry in the White House, for you, for me, for all Americans," Edwards shouted to roars.
The "new team for a new America," as the campaign dubbed the ticket, started the day in Pittsburgh and swung through Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio, before heading to Florida. They are scheduled to hold a rally in Fort Lauderdale today.
Surrounded by a bevy of family members, Kerry and Edwards showed off a light-hearted style that had often seemed missing from Kerry campaign events.
Kerry quipped that he and Edwards have a better vision, and a better understanding of what's happening in America. And, he added, "We have better hair."
He recited the similarities between him and Edwards: "We're both lawyers. His name is John, my name is John. He was named People magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year, I read People magazine."
It was Kerry's second visit to Pinellas County in just over a month, and his fifth Tampa Bay campaign event since March. Tampa Bay, viewed by strategists as the region with the biggest concentration of swing voters, is a top battleground in Florida, and Pinellas County is a crucial piece of it. Though Republicans outnumber Democrats in Pinellas, Al Gore carried the county in 2000 by 4 percentage points.
"It definitely demonstrates the importance of St. Petersburg as the anchor for the Florida election, and we all know how important Florida is in the national election," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, a close ally of Gov. Jeb Bush and a county co-chairman of the president's re-election campaign.
Baker said the president is expected to stop in Pinellas soon too, though he did not have a specific date.
Florida Democrats are touting Edwards as a running mate who will help energize hardcore Democrats in South Florida, win over swing voters in Central Florida and help minimize Bush's advantage in conservative North Florida.
Republicans dismissed Edwards' strength in Florida. Ralph Reed, the Southeast chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Edwards is too liberal to make any difference in Florida or the rest of the South, he said.
"What voters in the South are looking for is not someone who shares the same zip code or shares the same accent. They're looking for someone who shares their values."
_ Times staff writers Carrie Johnson and Kelly Virella contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.