Both Presidential Campaigns Make It Clear That Florida Matters

Florida voters are concerned about foreclosures, as is much of the rest of the nation.
Florida voters are concerned about foreclosures, as is much of the rest of the nation. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008

TITUSVILLE, Fla., Aug. 2 -- Barack Obama's two-day campaign swing through economically hard-hit areas of Central Florida and John McCain's country concert extravaganza in the Panhandle Friday night put the nation on notice: After all the melodrama and bitterness of 2000 and 2004, Florida and its trove of 27 electoral votes are back in play.

The state that handed George W. Bush the White House with a few hundred disputed votes and a truncated recount again offers some of the best subplots of the campaign.

Will the oldest first-term presidential candidate dominate the crucial senior citizen bloc, especially veterans drawn to an aging war hero? Will African Americans, still convinced they were robbed of their votes in 2000, deliver Florida to the first black nominee of a major party? Will Jewish voters, a traditional Democratic bloc that sided with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's invalidated primary, cast their lot with a candidate that many remain uneasy about? Will the state's Hispanic vote, now diversified beyond the Cuban American base that has solidly supported Republicans, be receptive to a Democrat?

To that colorful trove of identity politics there is another that could trump them all: the economy. With the state reeling from the housing crisis and soaring energy and insurance costs, Democrats believe the ground has shifted in their favor.

"Here's what I think is different," Obama said Saturday, discussing why he can win a state that Sen. John F. Kerry lost by five percentage points in 2004. "We've had four more years of bad economic policies that have run the economy into a very bad place."

Obama's tour through Central Florida underscored how his campaign hopes to capitalize on the state's economic troubles. Rather than focus his efforts on his base in urban centers, he is paying attention to traditionally conservative regions, many devastated by plunging house values, rising foreclosures and vanishing jobs.

On Friday, he stopped by a mobile home dealer in Lakeland, a mid-size Republican town between Tampa Bay and Orlando, to speak to residents buffeted by the subprime mortgage crisis.

"He made me feel better that there's the possibility that business as usual will stop," said Scott Cullen, the nearly broke owner of a pool-cleaning company that has lost 90 percent of its business as customers have lost their homes to foreclosure. Cullen, who told his story to Obama in a model double-wide trailer on the lot of PJ's Dream Home Center, said that for the first time in his life, he is going to vote for a Democrat for president.

At a town hall meeting near Cape Canaveral in Titusville on Saturday morning, Obama talked of protecting Social Security, funding space and ocean research, dealing with the threat posed by climate change and getting a home-cooked meal.

Florida is "within striking distance," said Sen. Bill Nelson, one of only two Democrats in statewide elective office. "The way you win Florida is you do what he's doing."

In 2000 and 2004, Florida was a bright spot on the nation's economic landscape, reaping the rewards of a building boom that was drawing people to the state, filling government coffers and supplying jobs from construction to real estate sales to financial speculation. But Obama awoke Friday to a banner headline in the St. Petersburg Times declaring, "In Florida, it's recession."

The state's economy contracted by 1.6 percent in April, May and June. The Labor Department reported on Wednesday that the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area recorded the second-largest jump in jobless rates in the nation in June, a 2.8 percent increase. The Naples metropolitan area ranked third, and the once booming Bradenton-Sarasota metropolitan area was fourth.

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