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Bush courts Florida vote

Pledges to seek triple storm aid

MIAMI -- With the two leading presidential candidates tied in a new poll in this crucial battleground state, President Bush flew here yesterday for a briefing on Florida's recovery from Hurricane Charley and announced that he would seek to triple the amount of federal relief money, to $3 billion, for victims of the devastating Aug. 13 storm.

For Bush -- whose father angered some Floridians for not providing more and swifter aid after deadly Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and barely beat Bill Clinton in the state three months later -- this state's 27 electoral votes are even more crucial to his political fate than in 2000, when he beat Al Gore in a contested election in Florida by just 537 votes.

With Democratic nominee John F. Kerry competing more aggressively than Gore did in Ohio, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and other states Bush won in 2000, the president's advisers say that holding onto Florida is especially important.

Bush and his wife, Laura, stopped at Miami Fire Station No. 2 in the 91-degree heat to discuss hurricane clean-up efforts and express concern for citrus and vegetable growers. They were accompanied by federal and state officials, including the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush. Hurricane Charley killed 26 people and caused more than $7 billion in damage. Bush said he would seek an additional $2 billion from Congress on top of the $1 billion in previously-announced assistance and loans.

''These disasters cause a lot of harm and grief, but they bring out the best in the citizenry," Bush said.

Bush later attended a downtown rally at Miami Arena and said he wanted votes Nov. 2 from Florida Democrats and independents, appearing with his most prominent Democratic supporter, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia.

Miller told a predominantly Hispanic crowd of several thousand that he was a ''conservative Democrat" who had abandoned his party's nominee and Senate colleague because Bush has shown ''strong leadership" in the war on terror and ''stands firm for strengthening American values."

The incumbent delighted the crowd by peppering his speech with Spanish phrases: lulling cheers at one point by saying, to laughs, ''un momento." He also mocked what he deemed as Kerry's heavily nuanced position on the Iraq war and its reconstruction by saying with a touch of sarcasm, ''muy claro," or ''very clear."

The applause was strong as Bush called for a democratic Cuba, pledged to continue an economic embargo on the island, and referred to President Fidel Castro as ''a tyrant."

Bush lost Miami-Dade County in 2000 to Gore, 46 percent to 52 percent, but an Aug. 20-22 poll by Univision of 600 registered county voters suggested he was holding a 5 percentage point lead over Kerry.

Statewide, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 859 registered voters this week indicated Bush and Kerry each had 45 percent support, with 3 percent for independent candidate Ralph Nader.

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

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