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Bush, Kerry seek ways to triumph amid tragedy

Not even the most seasoned strategist could have foreseen this perfect storm in presidential politics.

Two swing states already too close to call are battered by Mother Nature -- four hurricanes in Florida and record rains and flooding in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of thousands of homes are destroyed or in shambles; roads and bridges are impassable; entire business districts closed; phone service and electricity knocked out or disrupted.

The discourse suddenly shifts from politics and policy to survival and salvage.

Meanwhile, President Bush is fighting for his political future, U.S. Sen. John Kerry is fighting to take Bush's job, and their march to Nov. 2 must pick a careful path through the devastation.

"It's not something you can factor into a campaign plan back in March, to be sure," said Mark Nevins, spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Pennsylvania. "It's not something you develop a contingency for -- what if the country gets socked by four consecutive hurricanes and tropical storms?"

In Pennsylvania and Florida, fretting over who's in the White House is often taking a back seat to worrying about what's left of the family house.

Combined, the states have 48 electoral votes -- 27 in Florida, 21 in Pennsylvania. Bush and Kerry covet those votes -- nearly 20 percent of the 270 needed to become president. But they must tread carefully, lest they alienate the vexed voters they're wooing.

They can't count on polling to guide them. Hurricanes and their remnants have made polling impossible or unreliable.

"'You're calling me for a political poll and I don't have a roof over my head• No thanks.' It's insensitive, it's offensive and the results you'd be getting would be skewed and not reliable," said Larry Harris, a principal of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, Florida's pollster of record for 20 years.

More than 1 million people in Florida remained without power last week.

People in hard-hit areas expect the president to visit and hope he can hasten the healing with tax dollars, said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor of political communication. It gives the incumbent an advantage, as long as the timing is right, he said.

"If you say or do anything prematurely, there's no question but that people perceive it as exploiting the situation," Shuster said.

Waiting too long is just as dangerous. In 1992, Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, nearly lost Florida to Bill Clinton because he waited four days before visiting the southern end of the state ravaged by Hurricane Andrew. The most destructive storm on record, Andrew destroyed swaths of South Florida and Louisiana, causing $26.5 billion in damage.

"Now presidents don't dare wait that long with something as catastrophic as we've been through," said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa. "Both parties have benefited from that (1992) lesson. People do appreciate concern. ... It's the personal touch and connection when people are in need; they don't want to go it alone."

Florida Sen. Bob Graham, one of Bush's most vociferous opponents, has kept politics out of the president's recent visits to his battered state, said Paul Anderson, Graham's spokesman.

"The president has gone into Florida as the president, to talk about recovery, make declarations of emergency and make sure counties are eligible for assistance," Anderson said. "Does that give him some benefit• Undoubtedly. But it's very important and very necessary."

Kerry purposely avoided visiting hard-hit areas of Florida and Pennsylvania in recent weeks because of the logistical demands a traveling campaign puts on communities, and campaign volunteers were asked to help clean up debris in neighborhoods they might otherwise be soliciting for votes, Nevins said.

"I don't think I'm overstating it to say that, when you're looking at a community that's been destroyed or severely damaged by this weather, it's hard to argue that electoral votes are important," Nevins said. "We have to balance our efforts to make sure these communities are doing OK with our long-term goal of winning this election."

"A lot of people, in my view, in this day and age, are incredibly cynical," said history professor Greg Bush, who directs the Institute for Public History at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, site of last week's presidential debate.

Bush, no relation to the president, believes the devastation in Florida and the resulting suspension of campaigning have "put Kerry at a clear disadvantage. He doesn't want to seem like he's upstaging Bush. He doesn't want to come immediately, and yet he has to send a message that he cares about people."

Bush has to send money, too. If federal aid doesn't come through quickly enough, voters could turn on the president.

"If you're feeling bad, there's going to be a tendency to blame the person or party that's in power. On the other hand, if help is forthcoming, it's very likely that you're going to be grateful to whoever provides it," said George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "People think in really primitive ways. That's true at the level of blame and level of gratitude."

Flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan was widespread in Allegheny County, where more than 1,000 businesses and 9,000 homes sustained damage. Statewide, 15,000 people in the 46 counties that were declared disaster areas have registered for help with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 681,000 Floridians registered with FEMA. Numbers for both states continue to climb.

FEMA says business owners can get loans, but not grants, to help them rebuild. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato told President Bush, when Bush toured flood-torn Millvale on Sept. 22 five days after the storm, that the county needs more federal aid than that.

"I told the president about the concerns; the business owners need grants, not just loans," Onorato said. "And we'll probably know next week how fast the checks are being cut to the residents."

It's not just about dollars. In Etna, Mayor Tom Rengers said he was disappointed that U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn Hills, canceled a scheduled tour of the borough to instead accompany Bush on his Millvale tour a few days earlier. Rengers rode in the motorcade with other dignitaries, but did not get to speak with anyone about Etna's needs.

"Everybody can see there's a lot of hurting going on in Florida, and they're getting a lot of help," said Rengers, who holds out hope that federal grants will come through soon. "If they want to turn the vote around here, they know what to do."

No one knows how the campaigns' responses are working, though, because the storms suspended political polling, television advertising and neighborhood canvassing for weeks in Florida, Harris said.

"I'm not going to suggest to my clients that they spend good money ... when they can't reach hundreds of thousands or millions of people," Harris said.

That state is divided into regions with distinct political and cultural bents. The Panhandle, Northeast and Southwest Florida trend Republican, but the Southeast -- Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties -- is solidly Democratic. Swing voters are in the Central Florida communities along the Interstate 4 corridor, which were evenly divided during the 2000 election.

Harris predicted some candidates will use pastors to send messages to voters and urge them to go to the polls in November, but no one is certain how the lasting aftermath of the storms will affect voter turnout.

Hurricane Charley hit Charlotte County, Fla., harder than any other area. Two weeks later, 18 percent of the county's voters cast ballots in the primary for U.S. Senate and state and local races. Though lower than the 24 to 27 percent turnout that had been predicted, it was still a higher percentage of voters than in nearby counties that barely got hit, said Blanche House, assistant supervisor of elections in Charlotte County.

Allegheny County and Florida officials remain optimistic about turnout on Nov. 2.

Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, is predicting strong voter turnout for the general election, despite the storms' devastation.

Onorato said residents of inundated creekside towns "have the will to come back. I think these are strong, civic-minded individuals, and if they can get to the polls, they're going to be there on Election Day because there's a lot at stake."

As for who will win the Nov. 2 election, experts say the states that were too close to call are still too close -- and now too closed.

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