FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) and running mate John Edwards (search) sought to rally voters in Florida on Thursday by recalling the recount dispute in 2000 that tipped the election to George W. Bush.
"I got news for you. In 2004, not only does every vote in Florida count, but every vote is going to be counted," Kerry said during a sweltering rally inside an airport hanger. "They fix those machines, we'll fix America."
Democrats are putting a heavy emphasis on this battleground state, where the race seems as close now as it was four years ago. A scant 537 votes delivered Florida and the presidency to Bush after a protracted legal battle resolved by the Supreme Court. Since then, Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (search), handily won re-election in 2002 and Republicans increased their registration ranks.
But voter worries about the war in Iraq and other concerns have appeared to cut into any GOP advantage. Recent polls show the race for Florida's 27 electoral votes to be a dead heat.
The campaign is seeking to capitalize on the fact that Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, was born in Jacksonville and still has family in the state. She boasted of that heritage at a rally Wednesday night in St. Petersburg.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., the Kerry-Edwards state chairman, said he expects repeated visits to the state by the Edwards family.
"They're willing to spend a lot of their time here," much as Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate, did four years ago, Meek said in an interview. Mrs. Edwards "has cousins all over the state. There will be plenty of places for them to stay," Meek joked.
Tentative campaign plans call for a Kerry-Edwards bus tour in Florida in August, Meek said.
Since March, each campaign has spent more than $10 million in television commercials in the state.
Kerry told thousands of supporters gathered at the airport hanger in Broward County -- site of one of the biggest recount disputes in 2000 -- that he's discovered that Edwards' youngest children, ages 6 and 4, are "good at math."
"Those kids really know how to count. I've given them a special duty in this election. We're sending Jack and Emma Claire down there to help those Republicans in West Palm Beach count those votes," Kerry said.
Kerry and Edwards also emphasized issues important to Florida's large community of military families and retirees, promising to cut health care costs and to protect Social Security and veterans benefits.
"We will never privatize Social Security, we will not cut Social Security benefits, and will give seniors a real prescription drug benefit on Medicare," Kerry said.
Edwards told supporters, "We share a vision and we share a set of values, the same values I grew up with in that little town in North Carolina." The son of a Carolina textile mill worker, Edwards made millions as a plaintiff's trial lawyer before being elected to the Senate in 1998.
Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, argued that the Kerry-Edwards ticket is wrong for Florida. "Visiting an area with many military installations near it, Kerry and Edwards are both senators who voted for the war in Iraq but then voted against the money for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," Schmidt said.
"And, John Kerry wants to take away the prescription drug benefit card that is helping Florida seniors and all seniors pay less money for their prescription drug benefits," Schmidt said.
Kerry campaign officials agreed they were putting special emphasis on Florida -- which offers the largest electoral prize of what both sides identify as battleground states -- but denied that they had to modify their message for Florida consumption.
"I think our message is already tailored to Florida," said campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
Kerry and Edwards later went to New York for a fund-raising rock concert at Radio City Music Hall expected to bring in a record $7 million. Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, also taped a cable TV interview that was broadcast later Thursday.
In that appearance, Kerry defended his choice of Edwards, saying the freshman senator from North Carolina was "strong enough and skilled enough to lead" the country if necessary.
The candidates will campaign on Friday in West Virginia and New Mexico before winding up their joint appearances with a rally Saturday night in Edwards' hometown of Raleigh, N.C.
Edwards is expected to begin his own campaign schedule next Wednesday, campaign officials said.