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Kerry promises vigilance at polls

 

By Brian E. Crowley, Palm Beach Post Political Editor

March 9, 2004

 

WEST PALM BEACH -- John Kerry said Monday he is ready to go to court -- even before the November election -- to ensure that he does not lose Florida's 27 electoral votes because of ballot problems.

 

And he directly accused Republicans of stealing the 2000 election for George W. Bush in a contest that was finally settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, giving the president a 537-vote victory.

 

"What can you do to prevent them from stealing the election again?" Kerry asked a crowd of hundreds at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Hollywood, his first stop in a three-city Florida campaign swing Monday.

 

"We're going to pre-check it, we're going to have the legal team in place," said Kerry, who expected to easily win today's Florida presidential primary. "We're going to take injunctions where necessary ahead of time. We'll pre-challenge if necessary."

 

From Hollywood, the Massachusetts senator headed to West Palm Beach, where he spoke to hundreds more supporters in front of the city library on Clematis Street. But before getting to West Palm Beach, Kerry made an unscheduled stop at Poppies, a suburban Delray Beach deli where he mingled with the lunch crowd. His third scheduled stop was a night visit to the Ybor City area of Tampa.

 

Palm Beach County was the flash point in the 2000 election where the now infamous "hanging chads" led to a 37-day legal battle over the counting of Florida's votes. Vice President Al Gore argued that thousands of votes for him were not counted. He also argued that the design of Palm Beach County's ballot was confusing and led to some votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan that were intended for Gore.

 

Two years later, Floridians were embarrassed once again when there were serious problems with voting in the Democratic primary for governor. In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, polls opened late and closed too early, voters were sent to the wrong precincts, and some electronic voting machines were unable to record the vote. It took a week before Bill McBride was declared the winner over Janet Reno. But recounts trimmed his lead from more than 8,000 votes to just over 4,000.

 

With that history and a strong distrust of Florida's GOP leadership, Democrats say they will do more than keep a watchful eye on this election.

 

"I'm often asked how it feels to run for the highest office in the land," Kerry said. "I don't have a clue. I'm not running for secretary of state of Florida."

 

Democratic crowds roared at the reminder of former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who gave the initial order to stop the recounting of votes in 2000. Harris is now a Sarasota-area Congresswoman.

 

"I don't think we ought to have any vote cast in America that cannot be traced and properly recounted," Kerry said. "I intend to ask this legal team to do that, and we will identify those districts where people have had trouble voting in the past."

 

Standing in front of a "Florida is Kerry Country" banner with oranges replacing the "o," Kerry was introduced to the crowd by West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

 

"In Palm Beach County we take elections personally," Frankel said. "Four years ago when we cast our votes, our votes were dismissed, which means we were dismissed."

 

Wexler was even more blunt, saying the president and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, "stole the election."

 

With the Democratic presidential nomination all but locked -- longshot candidates Al Sharpton of New York and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich are the only other active candidates of the nine listed on today's ballot -- Kerry also concentrated his fire on the president.

 

He called Bush "the great divider" who has taken care of the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class, failed to provide prescription drugs for seniors, went into Iraq without a plan for peace and has done little to help Americans find jobs.

 

One woman in Hollywood asked Kerry if he could "be mean enough to take on Bush." As the crowd cheered the woman's question, Kerry said, "I don't think you have to be mean. I think you have to be tough and know how to fight."

 

Kerry, however, probably cannot clinch the nomination even if he wins all of today's four primaries. Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi are having primaries today, for a total of 546 delegates, including Florida's 201.

 

According to an Associated Press analysis of delegates, Kerry has an estimated 1,558 delegates. Even if he wins all 546 delegates today, he would have only 2,104, just a few short of the 2,162 needed to officially become the Democratic nominee.

 

Kerry is likely to claim the nomination on March 16, when Illinois holds its primary with 186 delegates at stake. Accordingly, he planned to head for Chicago today after spending the night in Tampa.

 

brian_crowley@pbpost.com

Copyright 2004, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.

 

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