Two presidents dueled over Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's reelection tonight, with President Bush making a bitingly partisan pitch for his brother and former president Bill Clinton drawing a standing ovation for the governor's opponent.
The competing appearances by the president and his predecessor, who defeated the Bush brothers' father, underscored the huge stakes the national parties hold in this tight race. The White House is desperate to hold the statehouse on Tuesday, for family honor and as a head start on the presidential reelection campaign. Democrats are vowing to unseat one Bush after another.
Former vice president Al Gore, who has been using his Florida vote-counting nightmare in 2000 as fodder to whip up Democrats at campaign appearances, arrives Sunday to campaign with the governor's challenger, lawyer Bill McBride.
Jeb Bush drew thunderous boos from his supporters tonight when he named all the Democrats -- including Clinton, Gore, Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton -- who were visiting the state in the race's final hours.
George W. Bush, making his12th presidential trip to Florida, spoke at the Sun Dome here in McBride's home town, where Republicans stomped deafeningly as they shouted for four more years.
"For the sake of the Florida taxpayers, for the sake of the Florida schoolchildren, for the sake of dignity and integrity in the office of governor, send Jeb Bush back to Tallahassee," the president said.
Clinton, a day after campaigning in Maryland, addressed rallies in Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale, avoiding the more conservative central and northern parts of the state where McBride's strategists feared he would alienate centrist voters. Under palm trees across Ocean Drive from Miami Beach's Art Deco hotels, Clinton and McBride -- and the salsa band that followed them -- drew a throng of girls in bikini tops and shirtless, tanned young men leaning on beach cruiser bicycles to hear a message aimed at youth.
Clinton said young voters going to the polls for the first time and immigrants getting their first taste of democracy cast votes that did not count in the 2000 presidential election. He said the nation will be watching Florida on Tuesday and asking, "Are they going to be so discouraged they don't come back next time?"
The two presidents were wading into an increasingly shrill race. The Web site of the Florida Republican Party has a photo of Clinton along with ones of the two Bush brothers and the headline, "Who do you trust?" McBride, in his own attack, accused the governor of running a "campaign of lies" that is "the most dishonest campaign in modern Florida history."
When Bush last visited Florida, just over two weeks ago, his brother was slipping in polls and White House officials feared he could lose. But he moved into a small lead in several polls after McBride failed during a widely viewed Oct. 22 debate to offer a specific answer to moderator Tim Russert's flurry of questions about how he would pay for his plan to reduce class sizes in public schools. The lapse played into Bush's strategy of trying to paint McBride as a public policy novice who had offered only vague plans.
The president made a clear reference to the controversy about McBride's education plans when he warned that there are "too many in the political process who just say things, just kind of float something out there and hope it sounds good, hope somebody might bite on it, hope it convinces people, but have no intentions or capabilities of getting it done."
"That's the exact opposite of your governor," he said. Bush encouraged the governor's supporters not to ignore Democrats. "See, they don't want their taxes raised -- a lot of them don't," he said. "Democrats in Florida know the difference between somebody who tells it like it is and somebody who just tells it any way he sees fit."
Three hundred miles away at Miami Beach, Karen Murtagh-Monks, 42, a civil rights lawyer, watched Clinton with her children, aged 13, 12 and 8. A recent arrival in Florida, she said she was appalled by the class sizes in the public schools and opted to spend $40,000 a year to send her children to private school. McBride's plan to reduce class size struck a chord with her. "McBride is just right on the money," she said as Clinton told listeners that McBride's proposal is "not as expensive as they say."
McBride's strategists now acknowledge that a huge turnout is their only hope of winning, which is why they overcame earlier reservations and decided to invite Clinton, whose appeal to black voters remains intense.
In Miami, Clinton was introduced by Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.) as "the honorable brother" and discussed voting rights in the mostly black neighborhood. Clinton urged his listeners to vote, asking them to undo troubles of past Florida elections. He told them that he was old enough to remember a time when there was a poll tax in the South that disenfranchised black voters.
"I've seen black people turned away from the polls in droves," he said.
Clinton and McBride were dressed identically in blue shirtsleeves and red ties, but Clinton was the one the throng came to see. As Clinton waded into the crowd to clasp hands after his brief remarks, Lillie Seay, 59, a disabled Miami resident, raised herself out of her wheelchair with a friend's help to hug the former president around the neck.
"We love you! We love you! We love you!" the crowd chanted as Clinton, who stopped on his way out to snap his fingers to the beat of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," disappeared from view.
When Clinton arrived in Fort Lauderdale, a woman lofted a sign that said, "Remember when the president was smart?" Clinton was on stage with Janet Reno, his attorney general and McBride's primary challenger who has endorsed the Democratic nominee. In the back of the darkened gym, former Clinton aide James Carville loitered in sunglasses.
At the Sun Dome, the GOP crowd was warmed up by the governor's son, George P. Bush, and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded allied forces in the Persian Gulf War for the first President Bush. Referring to the current one, Schwarzkopf said, "There's no doubt in my mind that if we have to go back and kick hell out of the Iraqis again, he'll be a great commander in chief."
Roig-Franzia reported from Miami and Fort Lauderdale.