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Battleground: Florida

Shifting Loyalties Among Ethnic Groups a Factor

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page A08

NORTH MIAMI -- Carline Paul keeps an honest-to-goodness Florida voting machine -- an iVotronic touch-screen model -- in the cluttered space that was once her living room. Gray-haired Haitian American men speaking lyric Kreyol and wearing baffled expressions let Paul hold their hands as she guided them through sample ballots.

"When you see D-E-M," she said urgently, mixing English and Kreyol, "Baton!" Hit it!

A few miles away, men waited in North Miami's City Hall for an audience with Josaphat "Joe" Celestin, the city's first Haitian American mayor. The credenza in Celestin's wood-paneled office -- displaying pictures of him with such Republican luminaries as President Bush and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) -- speaks as loudly as his rival's baton.

"We've got five new Republican clubs in the Haitian community in North Miami in just the last year," Celestin boasted.

This is the topsy-turvy, up-is-down world of Florida presidential politics less than three weeks before the state that made 2000 the messiest presidential election in recent history returns to the polls to choose between Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Haitian Americans, once solidly Democratic, are in play for the GOP. Arab Americans, once reliably Republican, are nudging toward the Democratic ticket. Cuban Americans, a staple of the GOP, are considered gettable by Democrats. Moving even small numbers of these minority voters -- either to the polls for the first time or into a different party's vote-tally column -- could have a huge impact during this closest of battleground races in this closest of presidential elections.

"It's absolutely all in play," marvels Irene Secada, a longtime South Florida Democrat.

Polls show the race in Florida, a state that represents one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to secure the presidency, too close to call. Political veterans pity the pollsters this year. So many factors are complicating the forecasts: An unmatched hurricane season has forced polling places out of ruined buildings, prompting worries about lost voters. The whereabouts of thousands whose homes were damaged by hurricanes is so doubtful -- voter groups believe many may have sought refuge in other states -- that activists are urging people to vote by mail. A mailing by America Coming Together, an anti-Bush group, included an absentee-ballot request with an only-in-Florida option for not voting in person: "I am temporarily unable to occupy my residence due to hurricane, tornado, flood . . . or other natural disaster."

The run-up to the election is also clogged with court cases, including disputes over runoff provisions and a controversial decision by Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood (R) that could prevent thousands from voting because they did not check a box on their registration forms that asked whether they are U.S. citizens. Some counties are following her ruling, others are not. Then there is the wildcard of 600,000 newly registered voters.

"How many of these people who registered are going to vote?" asked Taleb Salhab, president of the Arab American Community Center, based in Orlando. "At the end of the day, this election is going to be about turnout."

The excruciatingly close margins have given a sense of possibilities to tiny factions as the Oct. 18 start of the state's first foray into early voting for a presidential election approaches. Haitian Americans with an estimated 150,000 voters and Arab Americans with 100,000 are eye-drops among the state's 9 million voters. But Florida politics is as much a game of tiny gains this year as giant leaps. Countless small to medium-size tightly to loosely organized groups are wielding unprecedented influence. A state once dominated by the politics of big unions and other large stalwarts of the political landscape has given over, in part, to a kaleidoscope of thinly nonpartisan "527" groups, hip-hop crusaders and small-scale upstart activists.

The larger organizations and demographic groups still hold great sway, but the smaller groups, operating outside the official campaign apparatuses, have lent an anything-goes essence to the race. Their bogey seems tantalizingly reachable: 537 votes, the margin of Bush's disputed victory over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

"If I get my 300 to 400 people in Orlando and 300 to 400 in Miami to vote, that could be the election," Salhab said.

The contest for Arab American voters crosses into two staples of modern political campaigning in Florida: post-Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism angst and the quest for the now-fabled "Interstate-4 voters," the inhabitants of the politically divided region between Tampa and Orlando that both political parties consider indispensable.

There has been a perceptible shift among Arab American voters away from the Republican Party because of complaints that the Bush administration unfairly targets Muslims in its anti-terrorism efforts. This small but vocal group may be joined in its shift to the left by another key demographic in Florida: Hispanic voters.

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