Early Voting Begins in Florida, Other States

While voters in several states — including the key state of Florida — headed to the polls for early voting Monday, the two presidential candidates were courting voters in Florida and New Jersey.

Early voting also began Monday in Texas, Colorado and Arkansas. Other key states have already begun in-person voting, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Click  here to read Monday's version of FOXNews.com's daily campaign digest, Trail Tales.

Both President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) arranged campaign swings through the Sunshine State over the weekend to coincide with the start of early voting. A clear victory by either candidate offers 27 electoral votes and a chance to avoid the recount that decided the 2000 election.

"There are probably a lot of people in Florida who are ready to cast their ballot," said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, senior adviser for the Bush campaign in Florida.

Meanwhile Monday, Kerry accused Bush of being guilty of "arrogant boasting" about Iraq amid reports that the top U.S. commander complained to the Pentagon last winter that troops didn't have the supplies they needed.

"Despite the president's arrogant boasting that he's done everything right in Iraq and that he's made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to catch up with him," the Massachusetts senator said during a campaign stop in West Palm Beach, Fla. "The president's tough talk about always supporting the troops is nothing more than empty rhetoric."

The Kerry camp also rolled out a TV ad showing Bush saying, "I truly am not that concerned about him" — a reference to Al Qaeda terror mastermind Usama bin Laden. The ad seeks to make the case that "It's time for a new direction" on Iraq and the War on Terror.

While asking for votes, Kerry also planned to outline his prescription for avoiding another flu vaccine shortage like the one this season.

Bush was in New Jersey on Monday to tell voters that his battle plan for fighting terrorists is better than Kerry's. The Bush-Cheney camp billed Bush's address in Marlton, N.J., as a major speech in the War on Terror.

In that speech, Bush reiterated that the United States needs to go on the offensive against terrorists so they don't reach American shores, and charged that Kerry isn't taking the terrorist threat seriously enough.

"You can count on me to defeat our enemies and defend our freedom," Bush told a rousing group of supporters. "Winning the War on Terror requires more ... than words in a political season."

Bush slammed Kerry for criticizing the Patriot Act, which is a post-Sept. 11 law now being used by law enforcement to help round up suspected terror suspects. Kerry voted in support of the law but now is saying it impedes Americans' civil liberties.

"The danger to America is not the Patriot Act or the people who use it — the danger is the terrorists and we will not let up on this fight," Bush countered, adding that his Democratic opponent has a "fundamental misunderstanding about the War on Terror."

He highlighted words Kerry has said reflecting the thought that preemptive action against terrorists isn't the best route to take to defeat would-be evildoers.

"This kind of Sept. 10 attitude is no way to protect out country," Bush said. "Tyrants and terrorists will not give us polite notice before they attack our countries. So long as I'm commander in chief, we will confront dangers abroad so we do not have to face them here at home."

New Jersey hasn't backed a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, but polls show the president running surprisingly competitive there. The state lost nearly 700 victims in the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Saturday, Bush stumped in South Florida and Daytona. On Monday night, he has a fundraiser in Boca Raton.

Also Monday, Bush signed into law the Department of Homeland Security Act for fiscal year 2005. The measure spends nearly $900 million more than Bush originally asked for; $3.6 billion of it will go to police and other emergency responders.

An Early Start to Voting

Early voting was introduced in Florida after the 2000 election, in which this crucial state decided the result by only 537 votes and introduced topics such as butterfly ballots and hanging chads to the national debate.

Some groups are urging voters to cast a paper absentee ballot because of concerns over the state's new touch-screen voting machines and any potential recounts. Others are touting it as a chance for busy voters to avoid waiting in line Nov. 2.

"It's going to be changing the way candidates campaign, because they have to get their message out to people two to three weeks earlier than in the past," said Palm Beach County elections supervisor Theresa LePore.

Some have criticized the concept of early voting, saying it increases opportunities for fraud without significantly boosting voter participation. Still, most states offer the option of early voting.

Across Florida, Democratic college students camped overnight at election offices to be the first in line Monday. The state's congressional black caucus is traveling to five cities over four days to emphasize early voting and voter protection. State Rep. Anne Gannon, a Delray Beach Democrat, is hosting a get-out-the-vote barbecue.

In Palm Beach County, a steady flow turned out Monday morning at more than a dozen sites. In Miami-Dade County, about 150 people gathered Monday morning for a rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Some people were carrying homemade signs that said "Early Voting Counts" and "Every Vote Matters."

Rosemarie Michel, 41, said she would cast her first vote in a presidential election when the poll site opened later in the day. Michel came to the United States from Haiti, became a U.S. citizen in 1998 but did not vote in the 2000 election because she "wasn't interested."

Now she is knocking on doors and telling people to vote.

"Every vote counts," Michel said.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush disagrees with a plan to open only one early-voting place in downtown Jacksonville to cover all of Duval County, and Secretary of State Glenda Hood urged the county Saturday "to increase accessibility" to early voting.

A Jacksonville city attorney has said it is too late to open new sites, even though the city council has committed more money to the idea. With 500,000 voters, Duval is the state's most populous county with only one site.

For voters in Palm Beach County, home of the infamous butterfly ballot, many are still upset about Al Gore's loss in 2000. The get-out-the-vote effort has attracted record attention, said Fred Dibean, vice president of the county's Young Democrats.

"The problem happened here last time, and we don't want it to happen again," he said. "We want to be the ones to fix it."

Election officials say that although the early-voting efforts create more work in a busy election year, they're pushing for voters to get to the polls and make their voices heard any way they can.

"As long as people vote, we're happy," said LePore, who lost her re-election bid in August. "But if something really bad happens about a candidate two days before an election, you can't change your vote."

Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said he and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Sharpton and other prominent black Democrats plan visits to urge people to minimize the possibility for trouble by voting early.

"It's very important," McAuliffe said. "We are encouraging them to vote early just to get it done."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.