John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential contender, and his running mate, John Edwards, brought their campaign to Florida on Thursday. Polls show President Bush and Senator Kerry locked in a virtual tie in Florida, which is considered to be a critical state in the November election.
Enthusiastic crowds greeted John Kerry and John Edwards at campaign rallies across Florida, just two days after Mr. Kerry announced he had selected North Carolina Senator Edwards as his running mate.
Speaking to a partisan crowd in a sweltering airport hanger in Ft. Lauderdale, Senator Kerry criticized the Bush administration's conduct in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. Mr. Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam war, said the Democratic team offers a clear alternative.
"John Edwards and I know how to fight a war on terror that does not create more terrorists, and makes America safer. And John and I will put in place a principle that is deep in my gut, and deep in the gut of anyone who has fought a war, that the United States of America, of all the countries on this planet, should never go to war because we want to. We should only go to war because we have to," Senator Kerry said.
Senator Edwards says he plans to try and bring the message of optimism and hope that figured prominently in his campaign for the Democratic nomination earlier in the campaign, to the national race over the next few months.
"We believe that tomorrow will be better than today. That if we do what we are capable of doing, everything is possible," he said. "And I will tell you something that is going to happen, between now and November; the American people are going to reject this tired old hateful negative politics of the past."
President Bush, speaking by satellite from Washington to a latino group - the League of United Latin American Citizens Convention - in San Antonio, Texas, Thursday, said the country is overcoming the challenges of the past few years.
"We are ready to meet every challenge that comes our way, and of course to seize new opportunities. And, as always, America looks to the future with confidence," he said.
Republican strategists in Florida say Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards were campaigning in safe Democratic districts and that that their liberal voting records in Congress are out of step with a majority of voters in southern states like Florida. Bush campaign officials say the president will spend a great deal of time campaigning in Florida this year. Democrats say they outnumber Republicans in Florida. Polls show Senator Kerry with more support than former Vice President Al Gore had in 2000, when he lost Florida to George Bush by 537 votes.
A recent Florida poll shows Senator Kerry and President Bush tied with 43 percent of the vote, with independent candidate activist Ralph Nader getting about five percent of the vote. Without Mr. Nader the poll shows Mr. Kerry with a slight lead.
Lance de Haven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University says neither party can make it to the White House this year without winning Florida.
"Well, it [Florida] has a large number of electoral votes, it is the fourth largest state in the nation. It is also very evenly divided, so it is in play. Together, those two factors, along with the fact that this is such an important election really focuses everything on Florida," he said.
Mr. de Haven-Smith says Florida has a history of close elections, not just in 2000, but in most other years as well. He says with the electorate evenly divided this year, 2004 could again see Florida playing the pivotal role in who is elected president.