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Seeking new focus, Kerry hits White House record

Camp dismisses polls suggesting Bush gains

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- With new polls indicating that President Bush is winning support on Iraq, terrorism, and the economy, Senator John F. Kerry tried to turn the political debate away from those issues and instead decried the White House's environmental record. He accused Bush of ''playing dirty" with air and water and aiding energy companies at the expense of children's health.

Kerry also took a rare shot at Bush's school smarts, something he had diligently avoided during the campaign because many Democratic politicians are aware that Al Gore turned off some voters in 2000 by appearing dismissive about Bush's intelligence. He made the comment at a Tampa fund-raiser, where Kerry noted that both he and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, sitting nearby, had attended Yale University, as had Bush.

''Bill and I share the same institution of higher education -- at least for some of us," Kerry told the $1,000-a-plate audience of about 500, some of whom chuckled at first, then laughed louder and applauded. Kerry, looking a bit sheepish, said in a low voice, ''No, uh, be nice."

That remark -- and another quip about Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and his alleged influence on the president -- were notable unscripted moments in an otherwise highly stage-managed morning, when Kerry brought up environmental issues after several days of breaking news out of Iraq and the Sept. 11 Commission dominating political debate.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, looking ahead to Earth Day celebrations tomorrow, joined four environmental activists at a bayside park, where one by one they laced into Bush's environmental record. Kerry cited a new state-by-state analysis, prepared by his campaign, that blamed the White House for policies that have resulted in 21 million more tons of pollution in the air and 100,000 premature deaths.

''We all know that when it comes to this administration and the environment, they're playing dirty," Kerry said in remarks squarely aimed at suburban soccer moms a key group courted by Gore in 2000. His audience at the park included several women and children, and he sat on a stage before them with three Tampa-area women and environmental activists as well as Carol Browner, who served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration.

''We are going to protect our rivers and our bays and our oceans because we want our children to enjoy them," Kerry said. ''We don't want them to get sick because George Bush and [Vice President] Dick Cheney think their friends at the energy companies deserve to make a buck at the expense of our kids' health, our kids' future."

At two points, Kerry drew on the live props around him. During one attack on Bush, a creature that appeared to be a dolphin bobbed in the bay. ''There he is over there," Kerry said. ''He says, 'Help, help, help.' " And when a gull began cackling noisily overhead, he said: ''The bird is affirming what I've said. If you want a translation, it's, 'George Bush, make it happen.' "

Also yesterday, the Kerry and Bush campaigns parried over recent polls that suggest that the two men are in a virtual tie among likely voters and the president is regarded more highly by voters on concerns such as Iraq and the economy than some political analysts had expected. The Kerry campaign released its own polling memo that began, ''Polls fluctuate often in meaningless ways," and contended that Bush faced ''ominous signs" such as high voter concern that the country generally is on the wrong track.

Kerry spent the bulk of the day fund-raising, netting $500,000 in Tampa for a total of $2.8 million during his swing through the South so far this week. Kerry helped raise another $2.1 million at those events for the Democratic National Committee.

On his campaign plane, Kerry was joined by three US senators who are widely seen as prospective running mates: John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, who both sought the 2004 nomination, and Nelson, the junior senator from Florida.

Kerry momentarily stepped into the cabin where the press corps sat, and when teased by one reporter about what the four men were discussing, he flashed a grin and spun around back to his seat. ''I didn't even have to ask him" to not answer the question, quipped a spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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