Bush makes a final push in Florida

Joined by the state's governor and Billy Graham, Bush tries to rally an unexpectedly close swing state.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 5, 2000 11:22PM (EST)

Gov. George W. Bush began his last push for Florida's 25 electoral votes Sunday morning by shoring up the support of God. Then he went after Latinos.

Strolling into the Jacksonville Historical Society, where a prayer service had been organized especially for him, a serene Bush approached the press pool and the TV cameras to say, "Great way to start off the stretch run. No politics. Just prayer and reflection."

Half an hour of prayer and reflection later, the Bushes emerged.

"God bless you, governor," said the Rev. Jerry Vines, pastor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Jacksonville.

"Remember, the Lord himself chooses the right man," added the Rev. Gretchen Van Aken.

A year ago, the idea that Bush would spend 24 of his last 48 hours on the campaign trail in the state where his little brother Jeb is governor seemed implausible. That he would need to visit the Sunshine State 14 times since his campaign kicked off in June 1999 would seem like crazy talk. Two different polls here show different results: One has Bush slightly ahead; the other gives a small edge to Gore.

But Bush's presence here should not be mistaken for concern about his chances nationally Tuesday night. The governor's previously closely guarded itinerary for Monday indicates cockiness about his chances in the rest of the country. Monday's stops include one visit to Vice President Al Gore's home state, in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and another in President Clinton's, in Bentonville, Ark.

After stops in Iowa and Wisconsin -- two swing states that were won not only by Bill Clinton in '92 and '96 but by former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- Bush will then head to the site of Tuesday night's celebration party: Austin, Texas.

Even though, here in the Bush bubble, Tuesday night's victory party seems a done deal, on Sunday Bush sought a little divine intervention.

At a Jacksonville Marriott, Bush walked into an upper-floor suite, followed by a frail Rev. Billy Graham, Laura Bush and Graham's son Franklin.

"Years ago -- I guess it wasn't all that long ago -- we had a long talk in Maine and began a faith's journey for me that, uh, reconfirmed my faith," Bush said of his 1985 conversation with Graham that eventually led to his becoming born-again. "He's obviously one of the great Americans."

Bush's eyes grew misty.

"It's comforting to be with a close friend," Bush said, "and to have coffee and prayer as we begin the final stretch of the campaign to be the president."

Noting that he'd led Bush's gubernatorial inaugural prayer in January 1995, Graham said, "I don't endorse candidates. But I've come as close to it, I guess, now as any time in my life, because I think it's extremely important. We have in our state absentee voting. I've already voted. I'll just let you guess who I voted for. And my family the same way ... If they, by God's will, win, I'm going to do everything in my power to help them make it a successful presidency."

In addition to "planting a mustard seed" in Bush's soul -- as Bush communications director Karen Hughes wrote in Bush's autobiography, "A Charge to Keep" -- Graham also served as mediator of a dispute Bush had with his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, about whether Jews would be allowed into heaven. Bush didn't think they would; Graham cautioned him not to do the work of God.

But it was the work of a candidate that Bush was focused on Sunday in a state that may determine who becomes the next president. Bush's rally in the largely Jewish enclave of West Palm Beach had the smallest attendance of any of Bush's rallies in the last week. But the list did include a number of VIPs, including his brother Jeb, Vegas lounge lizard Wayne Newton and Bo Derek.

Others were imported in for their more obvious appeal, such as Bush's pretty nephew, George P. Bush, who was raised in the state and is half Mexican-American. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in the house, saying he was in the Democratic enclave of West Palm Beach because all the transplanted New Yorkers have made the area the sixth borough of New York.

Bush was jubilant, even giddy, Sunday as he cruised on the Bush-Cheney Victory 2000 bus from Miami Airport to the football field of Florida International University. Standing at the front of the bus, he honked the horn and waved his three-fingered "W" sign at reporters. When Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater ambled by, Bush knocked on the window and jokingly punched his fist as if he wanted to beat Slater up -- a clear reference to Slater's report that Bush had lied to him in 1998 when asked if he'd ever been arrested since 1968.

"Hola!" Bush said to the largely Latino audience, which included Jon Secada and Emilio Estefan, husband of singer Gloria Estefan. He then launched into his traditional stump speech, occasionally substituting Spanish for English. He thanked his nephew Jorge, and Jorge's papa Jeb, whom he called "mi hermanito grande."

"And how about mi esposa?" he cried. "Today is our anniversary! Veinte y tres aqos!"

"Doble ve!" he cried, shouting the Spanish letter for "W." "Doble ve!"

He then added to his frequent riff on Gore's claim to have created the Internet. "If he's so smart, how come all the Internet addresses start with doble ve?" He asked. "And not just one doble ve, but tres doble ves!"

In Bush's mind, at least, this thing seems consumado.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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