MIAMI – President Bush (search) wooed the state that decided the 2000 election with a pledge Friday to seek $2 billion more for hurricane recovery, and launched a fresh attack on Sen. John Kerry's commitment to ousting Cuban leader Fidel Castro (search).
Thousands of Cuban-Americans filled the indoor arena where Bush spoke, part of a subtle effort by Bush to promote the Senate candidacy of Mel Martinez (search), Bush's former housing secretary. The Cuban-born Martinez is in a contest against fellow Republican Bill McCollum, with the primary this Tuesday.
The audience erupted in cheers when the president declared: "The people of Cuba should be free from the tyrant. And I believe that enforcing the embargo is a necessary part of that strategy."
Speaking at a rally, the president said Kerry had flip-flopped on the Helms-Burton Act signed by President Clinton in 1996 that tightened the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.
Speaking in Spanish, Bush said, "He voted yes, then he voted no."
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Kerry had voted for Helms-Burton twice but voted against the final bill because he objected to certain provisions. Singer did not elaborate on the language Kerry opposed.
Bush said Kerry had voted "to reward the dictator by lifting the tourism travel ban," but it wasn't clear what vote Bush referred to. In October, Kerry did not vote on an amendment to end restrictions on travel to Cuba. The amendment passed.
"For three and a half years, he did nothing on Cuba, waiting until an election year to enact a policy that will do nothing to bring down the Castro regime but will hurt the Cuban people," Singer said of Bush. "His policy has backfired, his support among Cuban Americans has dropped, so now he's launching negative attacks."
Bush brought along Sen. Zell Miller from neighboring Georgia, the conservative Democrat who will deliver the keynote address for Bush at the Republican National Convention. Miller bitterly criticized the first President Bush in his 1992 keynote speech for Bill Clinton at the Democratic convention, but is now a staunch supporter of the current president.
"You know, I happen to be a conservative Democrat, but I am not the only one who supports this good man," Miller said in warming up the crowd for Bush. It was his first political appearance with the Republican president.
"There are a lot of Democrats and independents here and throughout America who put the safety of our families above partisan politics," Miller said.
Miller's appearance with Bush seemed to complete a transformation from the fiery Democrat who addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1992 to the strong Bush backer of today.
In 1992, Miller told the Democrats: "For 12 dark years the Republicans have dealt in cynicism and skepticism. They've mastered the art of division and diversion, and they have robbed us of our hope."
He said repeatedly that the first President Bush "doesn't get it," and concluded, "And so the choice in this election is clear — we've got a race between an aristocrat, an autocrat and a Democrat. I know who I'm for."
Bush has spent most of the summer cementing his base of conservative Republicans, but stumping with Miller marked a new effort to reach out to independents, Democrats and middle-of-the-road voters.
Miller was also at Bush's side as he received a briefing on recovery efforts following Hurricane Charley's devastation Aug. 13. Officials said 136,000 families in Florida have registered for disaster relief and $53 million has been approved in areas affected by Charley. Bush said that Congress will be asked to approve $2 billion for relief.
Though the nearest damage from Charley was 100 miles away, Bush received a briefing in a Miami firehouse to accommodate Bush's re-election rally in this vote-rich city.
The rally, in turn, was scheduled to coincide with Florida's primary election Tuesday. At stake is which Republican candidate for U.S. Senate will advance to November's general election — Martinez or McCollum, a former congressman from Longwood.
Behind the scenes, the White House repeatedly urged Martinez to run. But Bush generally prefers to give the appearance that he is leaving such selection decisions to GOP voters.
Friday was Bush's third visit to the state this month, and another is planned after the GOP convention.
Several dozen protesters gathered outside the Miami Arena, many of them carrying signs criticizing the Bush administration's decision to restrict travel to Cuba.