In an Aug. 28 article about President Bush campaigning in Florida, the Varela Project, an effort by Cuban dissidents to force a referendum on civil liberties, was misspelled. (Published 8/30/04)
President Bush accused Sen. John F. Kerry in South Florida on Friday of abetting Fidel Castro's repression of Cuban dissidents, an incendiary charge in a state where White House strategists once were confident of victory but are now worried.
Bush, appearing for the third time in three weeks where 537 votes decided the last election, charged that Kerry had once "even criticized some of the dissidents" and "said their efforts to promote democracy were counterproductive."
Bush did not mention that Kerry had also said, in that interview, that he does not want to hurt the dissidents. As boos filled the partly empty Miami Arena, Bush added, "And he said they had brought down the hammer on themselves."
"I believe -- and strongly believe -- the people of Cuba should be free from the tyrant," Bush said, sprinkling his remarks with Spanish. "My opponent has a different approach."
In a new attack at a time when polls show him losing support among Cuban Americans, Bush mocked Kerry for voting in favor of two versions of the Helms-Burton act of 1996, which tightened sanctions against Cuba, and then opposing the measure on final passage.
"In other words, he voted for it before he voted against it," Bush said, repeating Kerry's explanation for his votes on an $87 billion budget bill to fund military operations in Iraq. For good measure, Bush repeated the line in Spanish: "Voto si, y despues voto no." Then, he added: "When I say something, I mean it."
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said the senator "has never criticized the dissidents" and believes that supporting them is vital to restoring democracy in Cuba.
Marshaling the assets of incumbency, Bush also visited a fire station to announce that he will seek $2 billion in additional aid to help Floridians recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Charley two weeks ago.
The president's strategists had felt as recently as this spring that he would wind up winning Florida fairly easily, partly because of the recovering economy and the support of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). But now they are pouring staff and money into the nation's largest swing state after discovering that Democrats have outpaced them in registering new voters in recent months.
The campaigns and parties together have about 50 staffers on each side in Florida, and it is the top state in television spending for both campaigns -- roughly $14 million for Bush and $12 million for Kerry, according to Democratic figures.
Karl Rove, White House senior political adviser, said he believes "the wind is at our back" in Florida because of the redoubled registration efforts. Bush-Cheney officials had been surprised to see state figures showing that Democrats had registered more new voters than Republicans had each month through the spring. From December through June, Democrats had registered 129,000 voters, compared with 75,000 for the Republicans.
Republican officials consider Florida's 27 electoral votes to be virtually irreplaceable -- for instance, Bush would have to win both Michigan and either Wisconsin or Minnesota to replace them.
"It gave us a chance to wash out any inkling of overconfidence that was there," Rove said. "I didn't think there was any, but now we're sure."
Bush's campaign is built on a grass-roots strategy, and his campaign officials put a high premium on measurements of all sorts, so the voter-registration figures got the attention of Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va. Rove said that the registration gap has been closed since it was discovered and that Bush is now "dead-even and maybe up a couple" of points in the state.
"This gave us a chance to go to our leadership and tell them, 'It's even more important for you to execute the plan and recruit the volunteers and take the steps that are necessary to win,' " Rove said.
The Democratic voter-registration effort has been aided by numerous independent spending groups. The Democratic Party, trying to tap residual outrage from the recounts of 2000, has launched a series of registration drives with names such as "At Your Door in 2004."
"We're outworking them," said Scott Maddox, the Florida Democratic chairman.
By denouncing Castro, Bush was trying to mitigate opposition to new travel restrictions, imposed by the administration on June 30 in an effort to squeeze the Cuban leader. U.S. residents are also barred from sending clothing, photographs and other items to loved ones in Cuba. The restrictions inflamed Cuban radio and Spanish-language television stations in Florida, and state political experts have cited the rules as a reason polls have shown Bush's support ebbing among Cuban Americans. They can now visit relatives only once every three years instead of once a year.
A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken in Florida from Aug. 20 to 22 showed the candidates in a statistical tie -- Bush at 48 percent and Kerry at 46 percent among likely voters. Bush had a four-percentage-point lead in July.
Kerry made the comments about dissidents in an interview with a Miami Herald columnist in June. Kerry said the Valera Project, a petition signed by 30,000 Cubans, had "gotten a lot of people in trouble . . . and it brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive." Kerry's staff said he supports the project.