Clinton hits Fla. soon after Bush Democrats caravan across pivotal area


OCALA, Fla. -- Bill Clinton led a bus caravan across Florida's politically pivotal midsection yesterday, demonstrating his determination to challenge President Bush in a state that hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 16 years.

The Arkansas governor, running mate Al Gore and their wives traced an arc from Daytona Beach through Orlando to Ocala.

Mr. Clinton exuded confidence at every stop, despite being dogged by groups of anti-abortion protesters and college Republicans, who held up signs and chanted "four more years" during the candidate's speeches. And he sharpened his counterattack on the Republican ticket, calling ongoing assaults on his character part of a "politics of desperation."

The trip marked the campaign's sixth bus caravan. It was routed through a region of the state long noted for being both politically volatile and often critical in deciding the outcomes of statewide elections.

The trip also came just two days after Mr. Bush had hit some of the same area -- a plan that campaign aides admitted was not just coincidence. On Saturday, the president appeared in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Clearwater, where he loosed some of his most personal attacks yet on the Democratic challenger and his policies.

Clinton spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said the trip was designed in part to rebut the attacks, which ranged from Mr. Clinton's efforts to protest the Vietnam War 23 years ago to his calls for a revamped tax structure.

Ms. Myers also said the mere fact that Mr. Bush felt it necessary to come to Florida -- a state in which a plurality of voters identify with the Republican Party -- just a month from the election showed how close the contest is. Neither Florida nor the state has supported a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Mr. Bush carried Florida with 61 percent of the vote in 1988, but with joblessness here at a nine-year high of 8.9 percent, his support in the strategic state is shaky.

"Right now we're about as close to 50-50 as a Democrat is going to get," said Kenneth H. "Buddy" MacKay, lieutenant governor of Florida and Mr. Clinton's campaign chairman.

Mr. Clinton made it clear that he also felt competitive in the state. When asked if he would win here on Nov. 3, he replied: "I don't know, but I think we have a chance."

Later, on CNN's "Larry King Live" show, Mr. Clinton said that if he won the presidency, he would continue the bus trips "to see ordinary people." He also promised to hold "town hall" meetings.

A massive survey of voter sentiment in all 50 states yesterday put Mr. Clinton within striking distance of locking up the presidency. The survey of 20,400 likely voters by the American Research Group of Manchester, N.H., focused on the states' electoral votes, which actually decide the election. It found that independent Ross Perot's re-entry into the race pushed Mr. Clinton to within six of the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll also showed Mr. Clinton with 46 percent of the probable electorate to 38 percent for Mr. Bush and 7 percent for Mr. Perot.

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