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.
"When it comes to the economy, it's night and day," compared with 2000 and 2004, said Mark Bubriski, Obama's Florida campaign spokesman.
Obama has blanketed the state with television ads since becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, spending more money here than in any other state, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison that tracks candidate media spending. Obama has spent more than $5 million since June 3 on television advertisements, airing more than 7,000 ads, the group estimates.
McCain has not been on the air in Florida since the January primary, when he spent about $1.5 million.
Equally striking is where Obama spent the money. He aired more ads in Pensacola -- the conservative Panhandle city where Navy pilots, including McCain, are trained -- than in Miami. Democrats in 2000 and 2004 ceded the Panhandle to Republicans, not airing any ads there, said the advertising project's director, Ken Goldstein.
"I never understood that," Goldstein said. "Those are areas that are going to go Republican, but it's not like the electoral college. Every African American voter you bring out in the Panhandle offsets a Cuban voter in Miami" likely to vote Republican.
McCain has gambled that, for now, he could spend his money in other states, even though recent polls show a dead heat and Florida is crucial to his electoral strategy.
Even Democrats concede McCain has advantages in Florida. He will have appeal with veterans and elderly voters, a huge bloc in Florida that Obama had difficulty with nationwide against Clinton.
Another bloc with whom McCain could make inroads comprises Jewish voters. Although recent national polling suggests Obama is taking 60 percent of Jewish support, that is well below what previous Democrats have received. The popularity of Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who is mentioned as a vice presidential possibility for McCain, will also likely help McCain with independents and some Democrats.
"We're in a good place in Florida, but it is one of those states you've got to work at to win," a McCain campaign strategist said. "It has trended in the right direction for us, both at the presidential and state level." Crist was elected in a bad year for Republicans, and only one statewide election official in state government is a Democrat. The strategist added that, "Democrats who win in Florida are far more centrist than Barack Obama."
But Democrats believe those good feelings will fade along with the economy. Obama has also sought to exploit local issues -- and McCain's positions -- against him. A national catastrophic homeowners insurance fund may not sound sexy, but in Florida it resonates in both parties. The first questioner at an Obama town hall meeting in St. Petersburg on Friday asked his position on such a fund, making note that homeowners insurance in the state is skyrocketing. Obama is for it. McCain is against it.
McCain also voted against a major water resources law that he denounced as pork-barrel waste. But inside that barrel was $2 billion in authorized funding to restore the Everglades, funding secured by Democratic lawmakers and sought by Crist.
And as in other states, Democrats appear to have an enthusiasm edge. From Jan. 1 to June 30, the Democratic Party registered 196,110 new voters, compared with 105,927 newly registered Republicans.
To the state's elected Republicans, all that is hype, reminiscent of Kerry's promises of revenge for the debacle of 2000. House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, who represents a piece of Central Florida where Obama campaigned Friday, even ventured that the state isn't even in play.
"Sure, there are college towns and some areas where he will do very well, but it does not appear he will do significantly better than base Democratic vote in Florida," Putnam said with a shrug. "McCain is doing better at this point than Bush was doing in 2004."