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Hurricanes throw new wrinkle into presidential race in Fla.

TALLAHASSEE -- In a cutthroat presidential race awash in public opinion polls that chronicle every inch of movement between President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry, one critical piece of the battleground picture has been missing: Florida.

For more than a month, neither campaign has been able to take the temperature of the electorate in a state distracted by a punishing summer of hurricanes. The devastation from Charley, Frances, and Ivan has thrown an unexpected wrinkle into the fall election season that could affect the outcome of the race.

As the president toured damage in the panhandle city of Pensacola yesterday, Democrats prepared for Kerry's first campaign visit to Florida in nearly eight weeks. Not since July 26 has Kerry been able to pay anything but one low-profile hurricane-inspection visit to Florida.

Kerry and vice presidential candidate John Edwards will return tomorrow to the state that decided the election four years ago as troops from both sides scramble to make up for lost time in the final six weeks before Election Day.

But both Kerry and Bush are flying somewhat blind in a state that holds one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to win the White House. "The public has been so preoccupied by the hurricane. The practical effect it has had on the political campaign is very real," said Tom Kiley, a longtime Kerry adviser and a top campaign pollster. "We believe it's not possible to accurately look at Florida."

While Bush has traveled to Florida three times in the last month to tour storm-ravaged areas, he has been unable to keep up the same schedule of visiting the state at least once a week in the plan outlined months ago by aides in their formula to win. Yesterday, instead of answering voters' questions in a swing region of the state, he walked through a storm-littered Pensacola street.

"I want to tell the citizens of this part of the world that we're praying for you," Bush said, "that we'll get help out here as quick as we can, and that we ask God's blessings on you and your families."

But even as the Bush campaign found hopeful signs in several key battleground states and in national polls in the two weeks since the Republican convention, strategists conceded yesterday they had no true sense of the race in Florida.

"It's totally frozen," a senior Bush adviser said in an interview, requesting anonymity to speak more freely about the state of the race. "It's frustrating."

The 2000 presidential race between Bush and Vice President Al Gore ended here in Tallahassee with an unprecedented recount and a 36-day legal fight ultimately settled by the US Supreme Court. Since then, Republicans have fought to defend Florida while Democrats have had their eye on revenge.

Mother Nature, though, has stymied efforts by both sides.

The hurricanes made the raft of television commercials moot to hundreds of thousands of people who lost power. Kerry's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, located near the Atlantic Ocean, had to be evacuated and boarded up during the back-to-back storms.

Preparing for another competitive race, independent interest groups with Republican and Democratic agendas have flooded the state, registering voters and going door to door. Virtually all activity ground to a halt Aug. 14, when Hurricane Charley hit the state.

"Everybody's psyche is about the same," said Karin Johanson, Florida director of America Coming Together, a Democratic-leaning group formed to register like-minded voters. "I don't think anyone has paid much attention to Kerry or Bush."

Even Bush's prime-time acceptance speech at the Republican convention earlier this month in New York was preempted by hurricane coverage on local television in South Florida and Orlando.

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