John Kerry and John Edwards returned to Florida in full force Tuesday, tapping the pent-up energy of state Democrats who hadn't seen the candidates in nearly two months.
Nearly 10,000 people packed the TD Waterhouse Centre late Tuesday night to see Kerry and Edwards. Bruce Springsteen blared from the speakers, and the crowd waved "Florida is Kerry Country" and "Unidos Con Kerry-Edwards" signs. Orlando Magic star Grant Hill also appeared on stage.
Kerry alluded the contested 2000 election in Florida, which President Bush won by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a recount.
"We are going to get it right this time," a hoarse Kerry told the roaring crowd.
Three hurricanes since mid August had nearly frozen political activity in America's largest battleground state, but the Democratic ticket ventured back with gusto. Kerry talked up his plans to lower health care costs in Jacksonville earlier in the day, and his running mate did the same in Tampa.
Edwards told roughly 500 people at a town hall-style meeting at a union hall in West Tampa that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney side repeatedly with powerful special interests such as drug and insurance companies.
"These people are not on the side of average Americans," said Edwards, who summarized the Bush health care plan this way: "Pray you don't get sick."
The men then met in Orlando for the rally, where Kerry criticized Bush's handling of Iraq, opposition to expanding stem cell research and approach to health care. He repeated his accusations that Bush deceived Americans about Iraq.
"Remember the old saying, "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?' " Kerry asked. "We need a president who tells the truth."
With polls pointing to fewer competitive states, Florida is emerging as perhaps the most crucial. Kerry made clear that Floridians will see a lot of him over the coming six weeks.
"I'm going to fight till the last dog dies," Kerry said in Jacksonville, promising to fight for every vote in Florida. "No ifs, ands or buts, I'll be here. I wouldn't be surprised if I wasn't here on Nov. 2."
In their question-and-answer sessions in Tampa and Jacksonville, Kerry and Edwards sought to highlight one of their sharpest differences with the Bush administration.
A central part of Kerry's platform is to dramatically reduce the number of uninsured. He would pay for it by rolling back tax cuts for people earning at least $200,000 per year.
Bush also calls for expanding health care coverage, but far more modestly and less expensively than Kerry. The president is pushing to make all of those tax cuts permanent.
Kerry cited Florida statistics to cast the president as missing in action on health care: Since 2000, Florida family health premiums have jumped from $3,746 to $10,558, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and 242,000 Floridians have lost health coverage. About 3.1-million people in Florida are uninsured.
"How could you be president of the United States for four years and watch the citizens you represent lose their health care day by day by day? Is that compassionate conservatism?" Kerry asked more than 400 people invited to see him in Jacksonville.
The four-term Massachusetts senator's plan, while far less sweeping than the ill-fated Bill Clinton proposals of 1993, would expand coverage to an estimated 1.9-million Floridians. He would support allowing cheaper prescription drugs from Canada to be imported. He also would try to reduce insurance costs for businesses through tax credits and creating an insurance pool that would cover 75 percent of the catastrophic medical cases of businesses that provide health coverage for their employees.
Kerry said his plan does not create a new bureaucracy, but the Bush-Cheney campaign called it a "big government health care plan."
"The American people aren't going to trust a candidate who empowers bureaucrats at the expense of doctors and patients," said Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt.
The Kerry-Edwards swing through Florida came the same day Bush addressed the United Nations and defended the war in Iraq.
In Florida, Kerry strongly criticized that U.N. speech and the administration's handling of Iraq. He said the president "failed to level with the world's leaders" and lacked the credibility to lead the international community.
"The management of this war has been both arrogant, lacking in candor and incompetent, and we need to change the course," he said.
Hurricanes have made reliable polling in Florida impossible for more than a month. But nationally and in other battleground states, Bush appears to have opened up at least a modest lead.
Anxiety over some of those poll numbers was apparent Wednesday among the Democrats turning out to see Kerry and Edwards.
"I'm glad they're cranking it back up in Florida. With these hurricanes that Bush name has been out there a lot, and not so much Kerry's," said Sandra Goldsberry, a retired railroad worker in Jacksonville.
Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville at one point held up a pair of gloves and led the crowd in a "take the gloves off" chant, suggesting Kerry should hit harder at Bush.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at
adamsptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.