John F. Kerry returned Wednesday to the home of the infamous butterfly ballot and the epicenter of the disputed 2000 election, pillorying President Bush on Medicare and Social Security while declining to rule out the possibility that Bush might reinstate the military draft.
The Democratic nominee arrived here nursing a cold, his voice raspy and cracking as he made his opening comments. But he and his voice gradually gained strength from an audience that repeatedly interjected derisive comments about the president, which seemed to underscore the bitterness Democrats here still feel about the 36-day recount battle and the Supreme Court decision that effectively gave the presidency to Bush.
After two days spent focusing on Iraq, Kerry shifted to the domestic issues that are likely to influence the outcome of what is widely seen as another dead-heat contest for the state's 27 electoral votes. Bush and Kerry advisers say the state remains deadlocked, as it was four years ago.
In a lively question-and-answer session with his audience, Kerry reprised his criticism of Bush's Iraq policies. He was told that some elderly women in Florida are reluctant to change presidents in the middle of a war, prompting Kerry to say, "Let me make it very clear to anybody who's listening who's thinking in these terms, about changing horses in midstream: When your horse is drowning in midstream, it's a good time to shift."
Kerry was also asked about unsubstantiated reports that have been circulating on the Internet and elsewhere that Bush has a plan to reinstate a military draft after the election, if he wins a second term. Kerry did not knock down that speculation.
"If George Bush were to be reelected, given the way he has gone about this war and given his avoidance of responsibility in North Korea and Iran and other places, it is possible. I can't tell you," he said. "I will tell you this: I will not reinstate the draft -- unless the United States of America faced the kind of global attack or conflagration where everybody in America understood through an open, democratic process we needed to defend this nation in that means."
Asked for comment, Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said: "John Kerry raising the possibility of a military draft is as irresponsible as him raising the possibility that the war he voted for is illegal. The one thing John Kerry has demonstrated this week is his willingness to say whatever he believes will benefit him politically, regardless of its effect on our troops, our allies and our mission."
Kerry said Bush's plan to create private accounts in Social Security would reward the financial services industry with a $900 billion windfall and would threaten the financial health of the system. "I will not cut benefits, I will not raise the retirement age and I will not privatize Social Security," Kerry said.
Kerry offered no specific plan for protecting the big entitlement program that is threatened by the pending retirement of the baby boom generation, other than to trim federal deficits and restore economic growth. His approach, he said, is "to be fiscally responsible and grow the economy."
On health care, Kerry said his plan would lower premiums for those insured and make it possible for those without insurance to get it. He accused Bush of running an ad that falsely claims the Kerry plan would put the government in charge of the nation's health care system.
"[He's] trying to scare you, telling you I'm going to raise your taxes, telling you that you can't choose your doctor, telling you things that just aren't true," Kerry said, and a voice cried out in the audience, "He's a liar, he's a liar."
Kerry and running mate John Edwards completed a two-day blitz of Florida on Wednesday, their first visits to the state since Florida was ravaged by three hurricanes that caused billions of dollars in damage and effectively halted political activity.
After appearing together Tuesday night at a rally in Orlando, the Democratic duo split up to hit key areas of South Florida. At a town hall meeting with several hundred people at a community center in Miami, Edwards hammered on the loss of health care coverage and jobs, as well as the lower wages, under the Bush administration.
"This is your country," he told the crowd, which was as vocal and supportive as Kerry's. "This country does not belong to George Bush and Dick Cheney. It belongs to all of us."
Kerry was introduced by West Palm Beach Mayor Lois J. Frankel, who said the butterfly ballot used four years ago -- which resulted in great confusion and lost votes for Al Gore -- had "changed the history of the world." She vowed that Democrats will prevent a repeat of that in November. "We're making you a promise," Frankel told Kerry. "Palm Beach County is not going to let this country down again."
Because of his voice problem, Kerry tore up his Thursday schedule. Aides said he would skip planned events in Iowa and go on a limited schedule in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Snyder, traveling with Edwards, reported from Miami.