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Crucial Florida Vote May Hinge On Burgeoning Latino Population

By Dan Balz and Richard Morin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 16, 2004; Page A01

The state that decided the 2000 election remains as deeply divided over the choice for president today as it was four years ago, with President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry deadlocked in Florida amid signs of extraordinary intensity and partisanship among voters, according to a new survey by The Washington Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.

With less than three weeks before Election Day, Florida and its 27 electoral votes represent the biggest single prize left on an electoral map that has seen the number of truly competitive states shrink to a dozen or fewer.

As in the 2000 race, President Bush is favored more than 2 to 1 over his Democratic opponent by registered Latino voters in the Sunshine State. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

The new poll shows that Florida may be headed toward another photo finish. Among likely voters, Bush and Kerry each received 48 percent of the vote in a hypothetical ballot test -- mirroring the race nationally. Independent Ralph Nader, whose votes probably cost Al Gore the state, pulled 1 percent, slightly below his statewide percentage four years ago. Bush and Kerry were also tied among registered votes, at 47 percent each, with Nader at 1 percent.

In one of the most important subplots in Florida, the Massachusetts senator is battling to make inroads against the president with the state's increasingly diverse Hispanic population. A separate poll conducted by The Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI) shows Bush holding a significant lead among Hispanic voters in Florida.

Bush has an overwhelming lead among Florida's Cuban Americans, who dominate the state's Hispanic population. But among the faster-growing non-Cuban Hispanic groups in Florida, the race is a virtual dead heat. The poll of Florida Latinos found Bush the favorite among older and foreign-born Hispanics while U.S.-born Hispanics split their vote. Nearly one in five Florida residents is of Hispanic descent.

Battered by hurricanes, Florida turned into a political black hole for much of September. Now it is the scene of a battle every bit as intense as the one that played out in 2000, with voters bombarded by television ads, the candidates canvassing the state, and the two parties and various independent groups targeting almost every slice of the electorate.

Remembering the 36-day recount drama, Floridians are paying close attention to the campaign. Among registered voters, 62 percent said they are following the campaign very closely. That is about 10 percentage points higher than a national sample of registered voters. Among likely voters, 70 percent said they are following the campaign very closely.

After controversies about butterfly ballots and hanging chads in 2000, about three in four Florida voters say they are very or fairly confident that the votes will be counted accurately this time. But the quarter of the electorate that remains skeptical has a dim view of what may happen on Election Day. Seven in 10 among those doubters believe that votes will be deliberately miscounted to help a candidate, and by 9 to 1, they say any miscounting will favor Bush.

The poll also depicts a state sharply polarized and firmly committed to a particular candidate. By 83 percent to 11 percent, Democrats support Kerry; by 89 percent to 7 percent, Republicans support Bush. Seven percent of Kerry voters said they could change their minds before the election, compared with 6 percent of Bush supporters.

The contest to succeed retiring Sen. Bob Graham (D) appears just as competitive as the presidential race, according to the poll, with former housing secretary Mel R. Martinez (R) and former state education commissioner Betty Castor (D) tied at 47 percent each among likely voters.

Floridians give the federal government high marks on its response to the four hurricanes that hit the state over six weeks, with more than four in five saying they are very or somewhat satisfied. But almost nine in 10 likely voters say that will have no impact on their vote for president.

Bush's job approval rating in the state stands at 51 percent among likely voters, marginally below his national number. His brother Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who has been widely praised for his handling of the hurricanes' aftermath, has an approval rating of 69 percent.

Terrorism, followed by Iraq and the economy, tops the list of issues among voters. Bush is judged better able to handle terrorism and Iraq, but he and Kerry are statistically even on the issue of the economy. Asked which candidate they trust to handle the major issues facing the country over the next four years, Bush has a 49-to-47 percent edge among likely voters.

Bush holds double-digit leads over Kerry on who is a stronger leader and trusted in a crisis, and has a smaller advantage on the question of who is more likable. Kerry has a statistically insignificant advantage on which candidate understands the voters' problems.

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