Kerry rallies troops with fierce attack on Bush's credibility

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The Independent US

The campaign for Florida - once again the pivotal race in the US presidential election - got back into gear yesterday after John Kerry laid into President Bush and vowed to keep fighting for the Sunshine State until polling day.

The campaign for Florida - once again the pivotal race in the US presidential election - got back into gear yesterday after John Kerry laid into President Bush and vowed to keep fighting for the Sunshine State until polling day.

Adopting a markedly more combative tone, Senator Kerry focused on the growing chaos in Iraq to launch a withering critique of George Bush's credibility. To the relief of an enthusiastic but initially apprehensive crowd of Democratic partisans in Orlando, Mr Kerry managed to be funny, incisive and passionate - elements that have frequently been lacking, to the detriment of his standing in the polls. He even managed to turn his hoarse voice to his advantage. "Tonight I'm going to talk softly but carry a big stick," he said to whoops from the capacity crowd at the TD Waterhouse indoor sports stadium.

Mr Kerry knows he cannot afford any more mistakes after a disastrous month and a half since the Democratic National Convention. He also knows that winning Florida, with its 27 electoral college votes, would be the single most effective way to deny Mr Bush a second term at the White House. Nobody knows exactly where the candidates stand in Florida, since hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan have made meaningful polling next to impossible and have pushed politics far down the priority list for both the media and the electorate.

Mr Kerry, knew he had to enthuse the Orlando crowd to re-energise his supporters, and the initial impression was that he succeeded.

On Iraq, which has emerged as the main issue in the campaign, he reduced the crowd to laughter by quoting a line of Mr Bush's from earlier in the day. The President had been asked about the grim National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, in which the Central Intelligence Agency saw continuing chaos as the best-case scenario and civil war the worst. "The CIA," the President had said, "laid out several scenarios. It said that life could be lousy, life could be OK, life could be better. They were just guessing as to what the conditions might be like."

Mr Kerry said: "Just guessing? The CIA and the American people deserve a better assessment than that from the President of the United States."

Mr Kerry's tone largely reflected the mood of the crowd, whose belligerence belied considerable anxiety about their candidate's ability to win on 2 November. Before the candidate took the stage, along with his vice-presidential running mate John Edwards, the audience was shouting anti-Bush slogans and making dog-barking noises. But they also voiced their discomfort with Mr Kerry.

Theoretically, Florida should be a better prospect for the Democrats than it was in 2000 because its population has swelled with new immigrants, a majority of whom tend to vote Democrat. But Mr Kerry's seemingly uninspired appearances on the stump earlier in the summer, have tightened the race considerably. The last polls taken before the hurricanes showed him and President Bush in a dead heat.

The Republicans have a few trump cards of their own, not least the fact that Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, is the President's brother, and he leads a state infrastructure dominated by the Republican Party. The hurricanes were a godsend to the President, giving him the excuse to visit Florida three times in the past month and approve the release of $5.1bn (£3bn) in disaster relief money, of which $500m has already been spent.

It is not clear, however, how far President Bush can push the political benefit of the hurricanes. Hundreds of thousands of swing voters were unable to follow his disaster relief appearances because they lacked electricity for their television sets.

There is also a sense in the state that politics has been put on hold until now. In stark contrast to other swing states, there are no lawn signs in Florida - all blown away by the strong winds. With power outages in 45 of the state's 67 counties, both parties have also pulled back on the television advertising.

Now though, as the Orlando congresswoman Corrine Brown said in her introduction for Mr Kerry on Tuesday night, the gloves are off.

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