DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In advance of Monday’s final presidential debate set for Florida, the candidates and their top surrogates have converged on this key swing state, where a prize of 29 electoral votes could determine who wins in November.
The focus on Florida comes as the race for the White House enters its final stretch, with polls showing President Obama and Romney neck-and-neck in the Sunshine State.
Vice President Joe Biden, dispatched to Florida on the strength of his appeal to two key constituencies — seniors and blue-collar workers -- represented the Obama campaign Friday in the Tampa Bay area.
Ann Romney and Michelle Obama, both seeking to give their husbands an edge among female voters, have scheduled events in South Florida in the coming days.
On Thursday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan was on the trail in Fort Myers and Ocala, and he was set to join GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Daytona Beach on Friday evening for a large rally. It was the 10th straight week that the campaigns have had a presence in Florida.
The contest for the state has been tightly competitive for most of the year, with Obama’s mid-September edge now apparently gone. There has also been significant variability in polls taken after the first presidential debate, with a Mason-Dixon poll showing Romney up seven percentage points and an NBC-WSJ-Marist poll showing Obama up only one percentage point.
According to a CNN/ORC International poll conducted in Florida after the second presidential debate, the race is virtually tied. Romney has the support of 49% of likely voters, with 48% backing President Obama. Romney’s one point margin is well within the survey’s sampling error.
For Romney, the stakes in Florida couldn’t be higher since his quest for 270 electoral votes will be much more challenging without a Florida win. He nabbed the endorsement of the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday. The paper endorsed Obama in 2008.
“Romney has a strong record of leadership to run on,” the editorial said. “He built a successful business. He rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics from scandal and mismanagement. As governor of Massachusetts, he worked with a Democrat-dominated legislature to close a $3 billion budget deficit without borrowing or raising taxes, and pass the health plan that became a national model. This is Romney’s time to lead, again.”
Obama, meanwhile, picked up the endorsement of the Tampa Bay Times.
“This is not the time to reverse course and return to the failed policies of the past,” the editorial says.
The recent drop in the national unemployment rate below 8 percent hasn’t helped Obama much in Florida, where the jobless rate for September was 8.7 percent, with just 800 jobs created according to state data released Friday. And the state is ranked No. 1 in the country for home foreclosures.
But during an event Friday in Sun City Center, Fla., Biden made the argument that Romney would make things worse, not better, for Floridians.
Biden said that until only recently, Romney and Ryan were touting “massive tax cuts for the very wealthy, because they are the ‘job creators’ . . . and significant cuts, particularly in entitlements, to vital programs because that’s the only way to get the country in shape, they argue.”
He criticized the Romney campaign for downplaying the Ryan budget already passed by the House that includes large tax cuts and a voucher option for Medicare.
“Now, after the convention, we find out, no, he didn’t mean that,” said Biden. “No, there’s no $5 trillion tax cut. We don’t have one of those. You heard Romney say that. You heard Ryan say that.
“Now he [Ryan] says, ‘I do not cut those programs. I just slow the growth of those programs.’”
“That’s like Romney standing in an unemployment line in Florida and turning to the guy and saying, ‘You know, I didn’t outsource your job. I offshored it.’ ”
That same sharp tone can be heard every day on Florida’s airwaves, which have been flooded with overwhelmingly negative ads. Some $136 million has been spent on campaign spots, with the edge going to Republicans, who have hammered the president with an ad saying that Obama used $716 billion from Medicare funds to pay for his health-care plan.
“The GOP ground game across Florida continues to build strength, with volunteers reaching nearly 10 million voter contacts, including almost 300,000 doors knocked in one week,” Republican National Committee spokesman Tom Brandt said Friday.
While Florida’s struggling economy appears to be helping Romney’s campaign, the state’s demographics, with Latino and African Americans making up nearly 30 percent of Florida voters, appear to be helping Obama. In 2008, he won the state by about 200,000 votes on the strength of those voting blocs in Miami, Orlando and Tampa, the site of the Republican National Convention this past summer.
Obama beat 2008 Republican nominee John McCain by 15 points among Latino voters.
But a recent Florida International University/Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald poll shows Romney faring much better among Latinos than McCain. While Obama still leads in that group, 51 percent to 44 percent over Romney, the gap is much narrower because of Romney’s strong showing among Cuban Americans, who view Obama’s record on immigration, the economy and foreign policy more negatively than other Latinos do.
“The two biggest Latino voting blocs in Florida are Puerto Ricans and Cubans, and they don’t care as much about Romney’s immigration stances,” said Ana Navarro, who was national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for McCain in 2008. “They care more about the economy and more about foreign policy towards Latin America and are not particularly pleased with the way Obama has handled [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez and [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro and the undemocratic governments in the region.”
Navarro said the Romney ground game for Hispanic outreach in Florida is much better than McCain’s was in 2008. “They have many more resources than McCain had four years ago, and they are putting them to use in a real way.”
One group of Hispanic voters appears to be helping Romney gain more support — evangelical Christians.
According to a Pew Research Center study (based on polling done shortly after the first presidential debate), 39 percent of evangelical Hispanics that are registered voters back the Republican candidate; 50 percent back Obama.
By contrast, 73 percent of Catholic Latinos and 82 percent of religiously-unaffiliated Latinos support Obama over Romney.
National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Samuel Rodriguez recently told Religion & Politics magazine that Romney has “reached out extensively” to him and other Latino evangelicals. Rodriguez said Romney could strengthen his support in the community “if he emphasizes his commitment to faith, family, entrepreneurship and a just immigration reform solution.”
Jon Cohen, Rachel Weiner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.