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Campaigns grow in fertile Florida

Four years after Florida notoriously decided the presidency, George Bush and John Kerry face off tonight in a state that is dramatically different yet eerily similar.

As in 2000, the Sunshine State could determine the outcome. And with five weeks to go, both sides are scrapping for every possible vote.

But the two campaigns are in far different shape than at this point in 2000.

"Four years ago I suspect we had thousands of people as precinct chairs, but we didn't have 7,000 _ every precinct literally covered," Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, said Wednesday, ticking off myriad ways the campaign has dramatically ramped up its Florida operation since 2000.

The same holds true for the Democrats. At this point in 2000, Al Gore had about 20 full-time paid staffers working in Florida. Today, Kerry has about 154 paid staffers in Florida, including 18 in the Tampa Bay area. Bush-Cheney has eight paid field organizers in Tampa Bay.

"The difference between where the Democratic nominee is today, in 2004, and where the nominee was four years ago is the difference of day and night," said senior Kerry adviser Tad Devine, who worked with Gore in 2000.

For one thing, the Kerry campaign decided from the start that Florida was key, whereas Gore did not make a Florida push until late September. So Kerry, bucking most early fundraising predictions, has managed to keep up with the $20-million in Florida TV advertising that Bush-Cheney has run since March.

On top of the big ground organization Kerry has deployed to Florida, his efforts are buttressed by well-funded independent groups paying for their own anti-Bush advertising and sending hundreds of paid and volunteer foot soldiers throughout Florida to mobilize Democratic voters.

Five weeks before election day, both sides are readying unprecedented grass roots campaigns in a state whose electoral significance is living up to its four-year image as the ultimate battleground.

With the number of competitive states dwindling, Kerry's options for reaching the necessary 270 electoral votes are narrowing, too. By many estimates, he can't win unless he picks off either Ohio (20 electoral votes) or Florida (27), both of which Bush won in 2000.

Losing Florida also could doom Bush's re-election prospects, requiring him to win several big states that backed Gore in 2000, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Which is why Florida can expect loads of attention from the candidates and their surrogates between now and Nov. 2. Kerry held an airport rally in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday night and, after tonight's debate, will hold a public rally at the University of South Florida Sun Dome on Friday morning.

The landscape in Florida, though, is murky after back-to-back hurricanes effectively froze the race since early August. Several recent polls have pointed to a slight Bush lead or a dead heat in Florida, though a Sept. 24-27 Gallup poll released Wednesday showed Bush comfortably leading Kerry, 52 percent to 43 percent among "likely voters." Among registered voters Bush led 49 percent to 45 percent.

But with thousands of people displaced or without power because of hurricanes, both sides see Florida polls as suspect.

"My gut tells me we're up four or five, but we're flying blind," Rove said Wednesday. "Look, this is going to be a very competitive state made even more so being struck by four hurricanes. If anyone can tell me with precision what that means for the fall election, I'd love to hear from them."

Republican strongholds, including southwest Florida and the Panhandle, have been hit hardest by the storms, Rove said. The effect on turnout is unclear, but the campaign has adjusted its Florida efforts and "put more resources into it" to compensate.

Bush-Cheney is relying heavily on a volunteer organization that has been trained and retrained for nearly a year. The Bush campaign counts more than 76,000 active volunteers in Florida, compared to Kerry's estimated 46,000.

As the political world turned its attention to Florida for tonight's debate, the Kerry campaign met with reporters to talk up its strength in Florida. Rove, meanwhile, met with a handful of Florida reporters, ticking off detailed statistics that made it clear he's paying close attention to what's happening here.

Independent Democratic groups have helped Democrats dramatically outpace Republicans in voter registration, but Rove dismissed the significance. More important than looking at this year, he said, is looking at what's happened since the fall of 2000.

"As of a week ago Monday, there were 10,000 more registered Republicans who have been registered in the last four years than there were new Democrats. My suspicion is we'll see that improve as we're making a real big final push here (before registration closes Monday). We're throwing every resource at it."

Kerry campaign leaders said Kerry is better positioned than Gore to take Florida on issues.

They pointed to rising Medicare premiums, health care costs, the disappearing Social Security surplus, more restrictive policies on travel to Cuba and the Iraq war. Added to that is the voter mobilization effort that they say will be like nothing Florida ever has seen.

"This will take its place in the textbook of how to run a campaign as it relates to our ground operation here in Florida, and when it turns on it's going to be a Category 5," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, chairman of Kerry's Florida campaign.

Unfortunately for the Kerry campaign, the president's backers are promising the same thing.

Kerry plans rallies

at USF, Kissimmee

John Kerry plans to hold a rally at the University of South Florida Friday, the morning after his debate with President Bush. The free event at the Sun Dome, 4202 E Fowler Ave., is open to the public. Gates open at 10:30 a.m.

From Tampa, Kerry will head to Kissimmee for another rally in the afternoon, and on Saturday he will campaign in Orlando.