STUART, Fla. – The four hurricanes that pounded Florida this season froze the state's presidential campaign in place, with President Bush (search) fighting to keep Florida in his column amid voter concerns about Iraq and the local economy.
Now, there's a big new issue: hurricane recovery. As the Republican incumbent and Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) kick off the presidential debate season in Miami on Thursday, many Floridians are still distracted.
"I can't think of politics right now," said Bush supporter John Norris. The 53-year-old bartender and owner of a small apartment complex in downtown Stuart had tears in his eyes as he pointed to the top of the building's walls — where his roof used to be.
Rolls of soggy, soiled carpet were piled at his feet, along with pieces of wicker furniture and a few toys. His words came in bursts, punctuated by sighs.
"I'm shell-shocked beyond belief. Four people are displaced in this building. It's a revenue-producing property. At least it used to be. I'm not sure whether insurance will pay. It's tough. But I'm not alone. I'm glad I'm alive."
Norris says he will vote for Bush. Like most storm victims interviewed this week, he said issues like Iraq, the economy and education will trump the weather again someday.
Florida, which swung the presidency to Bush in 2000, could determine whether he wins re-election. Kerry is courting the state's fast-growing Hispanic population while fighting perceptions in Florida that he is a weak leader. Despite his own political problems, Bush thinks he can make gains among newly arrived white voters from the Midwest and South.
Bush leads Kerry in the state, 52 percent to 43 percent, in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll released Wednesday night. The campaigns say their private surveys suggest the race fluctuates almost daily between a tie and a narrow Bush lead.
In mid-August, before Hurricane Charley (search) started the storm season, polls showed the race tied or Kerry slightly ahead. The Democrat, fresh off his nominating convention, was still enjoying his short-lived boost in poll ratings.
Since then, both candidates have faced questions about their Vietnam-era military service, Bush held his nominating convention. Kerry sharpened his criticism of the president's policies on Iraq. In Florida, many voters were too busy to notice.
Charley hammered Florida's southwest coast Aug. 13. Frances struck the Atlantic coast Sept 5. Ivan pelted the Panhandle on Sept. 16. Jeanne hit near here Saturday night.
"I would say the race is in suspended animation right now. We put the race down for a nap," said David Niven, political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.
As the campaigns slowly rises from its slumber, Bush's political prospects are mixed. The state has gained 300,000 jobs since he took office, but a solid majority of vre the debate.
White House officials are worried that Bush's voters will stay home Nov. 2 because the hurricanes took their heaviest toll on Republican areas. But most political experts in Florida say Kerry may suffer his share of turnout woes because low- and middle-class Democrats will be the slowest to recover in GOP areas.
"There will be people who are homeless, people without phones," said Nick Baldick, senior adviser for Kerry in Florida. "Even a month from now, there will be people deciding whether to vote or go get water."
Between storms, armies of Democratic activists are urging Kerry backers to take advantage of Florida's early voting laws. Bush's legions are pushing absentee ballots.
Combined, the campaigns and their allies are spending more than $5 million a week on television ads in Florida.
Dawn Gray, 35, and her five small children have no electricity in their Stuart home. No TV. No air conditioning — so they spent a warm Wednesday morning on the front lawn.
"It's hard to think about the election now, but I will vote," said the Republican. "I may be consumed with hoarding ice and saving food today, but what's going on outside these hurricanes is important, too."