When it comes to Florida, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is not following in Al Gore's footsteps.
At this point in the 2000 presidential campaign, advisers to the former vice president were still debating whether they would even compete seriously here against George W. Bush. When the Gore campaign finally began running television advertisements, it invested initially in just three media markets.
Kerry has adopted a far more aggressive -- and expensive -- strategy. On Wednesday, with a forum on bioterrorism at the University of South Florida, he concluded his 20th day of campaigning in the state since beginning his presidential campaign in 2003. More significantly, as he flew out of the state, he left behind television ads that were blanketing every media market in the state.
Much focus has been showered on Ohio in this campaign as the battleground of battlegrounds, but Florida, the state that determined the outcome of the 2000 campaign, has hardly been shunted to the sidelines. President Bush's campaign has spent about $14 million on television ads here since March, which in dollar terms outstrips any of the other states. "The fundamental difference is that [Florida] is a main battleground today, and it didn't become a main battleground until mid-September" in 2000, said Kerry adviser Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist in Gore's campaign.
Kerry's two-day trip to Florida combined serious policy discussion with choreographed events designed to maximize coverage on local television in both Democrat-rich South Florida and the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, one of the most contested areas in the state.
On Tuesday, after a speech on the risk of a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons, Kerry lingered on the tarmac at the West Palm Beach airport, testing his surgically repaired shoulder by tossing a baseball and then throwing a football with his aides -- all in sight of television cameras and photographers. He then flew to St. Petersburg in time for live coverage of his rally at the airport.
On Wednesday, he staged a discussion with experts on bioterrorism at which he again accused the Bush administration of not taking enough steps to protect the country from an attack.
Kerry said he would appoint a White House-level official to coordinate the government's efforts to combat potential bioterrorism, help states pay for the costs of preparedness, work with international allies to outlaw such weapons and make the safeguarding of biological agents a priority of the U.S.-Russian relationship. "We can make ourselves stronger than this administration," he said. "They are big on rhetoric and short on the leadership and dollars necessary to really make a difference to the security of our nation."
Responding for the Bush campaign, former White House official Richard Falkenrath said that what the administration has done on bioterrorism preparedness is "light-years beyond what any other country has done" and that Kerry has "never done anything of significance on this issue."
Florida's 27 electoral votes remain a huge prize. Four years ago, 537 votes separated the two candidates at the conclusion of the 36-day recount that was ended by a Supreme Court decision.
Kerry advisers said they are in better shape than Gore was here four years ago. "All polling showed [Gore] behind in the state at this time, which is contrary to all available research today, which shows Kerry either tied or ahead," Devine said. Bush advisers counter that the state has shaped up more quickly for Bush in this campaign, with the president running slightly better in Florida polls than in national polls. "We are actually in better shape in Florida than we were in 2000," Bush-Cheney senior adviser Matthew Dowd said in an e-mail.
Bush advisers say their spending in Florida is so large because of the cost of advertising and note that in terms of volume, they have aired as many ads in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota as in the Sunshine State. They add that when spending by unaffiliated Democratic groups, known as 527s, is added to Kerry's totals, the Democrats have about matched Bush's $14 million.
The key to Kerry's success, said Karl Koch, an adviser to Rep. Jim Davis (D-Fla.), is to match Gore's performance in South Florida and along the strip between Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg known as the I-4 corridor, but to improve on Gore in north Florida. "We have to do better than we did in the Panhandle," he said.
Kerry said he is prepared for any possible legal battles, having set up a national team of 2,000 lawyers. "We're not going to allow this election to become contested the way the last one was," he told a North Dakota radio host Tuesday.