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Bush Tries Old Campaign Themes During Campaign Stop in Florida

By Edward Walsh
THE WASHINGTON POST -- CLEARWATER, Fla.

On the first day of the rest of the presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush returned Monday to a theme that served him well during the Republican primaries and that he hopes will halt the erosion in a campaign that appears to have fallen behind a surging Vice President Al Gore.

As Bush embarked on a five-day, cross-country trip to five critical states, his aides said his message once again would be that he is “a different kind of Republican” with his own ideas about issues that historically have been more identified with the Democrats: health care, the environment and education.

But the Republican presidential nominee’s first stop here was an example of his campaign’s sudden defensive posture as his once formidable lead over Gore has all but evaporated. Except for 1996, when President Clinton carried the state, Florida has been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections and Bush’s brother, Jeb, is the state’s popular GOP governor. Now, however, Bush finds himself in an unexpected scramble to capture Florida’s 25 electoral votes.

Met at the airport here by his brother, Bush was asked why he should be struggling in a state where he seems to enjoy so many advantages, including his brother’s position as Florida’s chief executive.

“Don’t blame it on my brother,” he replied. “We’re going to carry Florida. We’re in good shape.”

Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, described Florida as a “battleground state.” She noted that Jeb lost his first race for governor in 1994 and that “recent elections have been very much swing elections,” producing both Democratic and Republican winners.

But Hughes ducked questions about whether Bush needed to carry Florida to win the presidency, saying “there are a lot of ways to add up to 270” electoral votes.

Bush’s travels this week will also take him to Missouri, Washington, California and New Mexico.