President Bush's campaign called on 6 million supporters nationwide Tuesday to "set partisanship aside" and contribute to hurricane relief in Florida as he and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry prepared to fly into the storm-ravaged swing state for the fall's first presidential debate.
Aides said Bush-Cheney campaign Chairman Marc Racicot's e-mailed appeal for American Red Cross donations had nothing to do with politics even though it coincides with the arrivals of the two candidates in the Miami area on Wednesday for their opening debate at 9 p.m. Thursday.
As Bush flies in, he will take a walking tour of orange groves in an area pounded by tornadoes and floods, his fifth visit to Florida in the six weeks since the state began being wracked by hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. Bush-Cheney Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman told reporters in a conference call that Bush "will not be doing political campaigning" during his stop but instead will be "discussing the response to the hurricane and sharing his thoughts about how tragic it's been."
Bush has conducted three previous damage-inspection tours and was briefed at the National Hurricane Center, giving him high visibility when most politicking in the state has been put on hold.
At the debate site at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, workers assembled six tractor-trailers of production equipment as officials from the Commission on Presidential Debates continued to chafe at demands from the Bush-Cheney campaign for rigorous enforcement of unprecedented debate restrictions designed to limit chances for the candidates to interact directly. One debate official said jokingly that the Bush campaign was so insistent about keeping the candidates in their designated spaces that organizers were "thinking of building a campfire" to satisfy the GOP handlers. Instead, the organizers will settle for strips of tape that are likely to be visible to television viewers, officials said.
Kerry campaign officials said they were happy Bush had agreed to all three debates and cared little about the rules, some of which the commission said are unenforceable because camera angles are controlled by the television networks. Bush confidant Karen Hughes said the aim of the rules was "no gimmicks, no tricks, no sudden surprises."
Aides portrayed Bush as relaxed as he headed into the first debate, saying he had settled on what he wanted to say during four formal rehearsals that began in July and ended Saturday. Hughes said Bush stuck to "his normal routine: up early, read the newspapers, read the Bible." He worked on a few transitions and talked about late headlines at a debate brush-up session.
Kerry also stayed out of sight as he prepared for the debate with advisers at the House on the Rock Resort in Spring Green, Wis. The vice presidential candidates were active on the campaign trail, touting their tickets as stronger and more sensible stewards in the fight against terrorism and in Iraq in particular.
Vice President Cheney used an appearance in Dubuque, Iowa, to accuse Kerry of repackaging Bush's policies. "With 35 days left in the campaign, and just in time for the debates, Senator Kerry says he has a plan for Iraq," Cheney told about 400 supporters. "Yet the plan he announced is not a plan, it's an echo of the strategy President Bush laid out many months ago."
Cheney said that although there are other issues facing the country, "in the final analysis, we're picking a commander in chief, and it's important we get it right." He said Kerry's "endless vacillation" sends "a message of confusion and shows that he is not ready for the responsibilities of commander in chief."
In Pittsburgh, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards told a crowd of union workers and university students that Bush policies -- including the handling of Iraq -- are to blame for rising gasoline prices and are lining the pockets of Halliburton Corp. executives and Saudi royals. "You see what's happening to the price of a barrel of oil," he said on a day when it rose to $50.
The North Carolina senator blasted Bush for failing to ensure that wiretap recordings from counterterrorism and counterintelligence investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would be properly translated. "They have not done their job." Edwards said. He said a Kerry administration would do more to complement electronic surveillance with human intelligence, saying the nation lacks the information it needs to stop terrorist plots while they are being planned.
Edwards held a large rally in downtown Newark late Tuesday, in part to help bolster flagging numbers in a state that he and Kerry were initially expected to carry easily.
Staff writers Matthew Mosk, with Edwards, and Ovetta Wiggins, with Cheney, contributed to this report.