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President stumps in Fla., blasts Kerry

ORLANDO -- President Bush kicked off his Florida campaign yesterday with a raucous rally in this crucial area of must-win Florida, tearing into his rival, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, as a too-willing-to-tax, indecisive senator who would snuff out the flames of economic recovery and lead the world astray in the war on terrorism.

But even as the president was whipping 12,000 enthusiastic supporters at the Orange County Convention Center into a fervor, CBS was releasing a "60 Minutes" transcript of an interview with one of the president's former counterterrorism officials, who contended that the administration ignored warnings about the growing threat of Al Qaeda and that Bush badgered him to come up with a way to tie Iraq to the attacks after the terrorists struck.

"Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for reelection on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism," Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism specialist who advised Bush and three other presidents, said in an interview scheduled to be aired on "60 Minutes" tonight. "He ignored it. He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11. Maybe. We'll never know."

In Orlando, as Bush launched his most sustained attack on Kerry to date, blasting the senator's vote against tax cuts the White House pushed through Congress, the president told his supporters that he's better suited to keep America safe from terrorism.

"If America shows weakness and uncertainty in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy," Bush said. "This will not happen on my watch."

But Clarke's comments -- combined with testimony an independent Sept. 11 commission is expected to receive next week from former Clinton administration officials that they warned Bush about the terrorist threat -- could put a dent in one of the most important weapons in the president's reelection arsenal: that he is a straight-shooting leader who is best positioned to keep terrorists at bay.

Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley praised Clarke's dedication, but told "60 Minutes" the president did not ignore warnings about Al Qaeda. Hadley said the president did urge his national security experts to investigate any potential threats to the United States.

Yesterday's rally, the president's first of his reelection campaign, underscored the importance of Florida, which Bush won in 2000 after a disputed vote count. And central Florida towns along Interstate 4 are crucial to carrying the state.

So Bush opened his campaign in Orlando and was received like a rock star.

The lights were dimmed and a spotlight heralded his entrance.

His brother, Governor Jeb Bush, told him as the crowd cheered, "Mr. President, as you can plainly see, Florida is Bush country. We are honored to be the first campaign rally of your reelection." Russ Abrams, and the Coursons, Hillary and Clinton, were among those who cheered the president.

Abrams, a senior at the University of Central Florida, said that unlike Democrats, he does not blame Bush for the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.

"Everyone was misinformed," Abrams said. "It wasn't him making it up."

Bush, Abrams said, is "a man of virtues and values."

Hillary and Clinton Courson ("We've won a lot of radio show contests," Clinton Courson joked) like the president's values, too. But Bush's efforts to fight terrorism is what impresses them most.

"I sleep better at night knowing he's there," said Hillary Courson, who runs a nursery.

The president wasted no time in getting to his economic message. "Senator Kerry is one of the main opponents of tax relief in the United States Congress," Bush said. "However, when tax increases are proposed, it's a lot easier to get a `yes' vote out of him."

The Kerry campaign was quick to respond. "Today, George Bush proved to the American people that he is incapable of solving our economic problems for the simple reason that he doesn't even see them," Kerry said in a statement.

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