By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008
MIAMI, Sept. 20 -- Barack Obama was wrapping up his remarks at a Friday night fundraiser here when he turned to the importance of Florida and its 27 electoral votes in his battle for the White House against Republican John McCain.
Obama expressed confidence overall about his prospects of prevailing in November, but then he reminded his audience that there are many ways to win the White House, some easier than others. "I'll tell you, we can win this thing without Florida," he said, "But, boy, it's a lot easier if we win Florida. If we win Florida, it is almost impossible for John McCain to win."
Obama's campaign is prepared to invest a huge amount of money to try to do what Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) failed to do in the Sunshine State. His campaign sent out an e-mail appeal for contributions in the past week, noting provocatively that his budget for Florida alone is $39 million.
But Florida remains one of the most difficult of the major battlegrounds for the senator from Illinois, just as it has for other Democrats this decade -- a costly dry hole. The question is whether Obama, with vast resources and a plan to redraw the shape of the electoral map, can win here. That strategy remains in doubt six weeks before the election.
"It's been a state where he's been close but just trailing," said Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic strategist.
At this point, polls show the race as close to even. McCain strategists say they believe they have a very narrow lead. Senior adviser Steve Schmidt said in a message Saturday, "We are up and will win it but don't take it for granted."
Another senior adviser to the senator from Arizona said: "In an environment, especially over the last two years, when a lot of states have gone in the wrong direction for our party, Florida hasn't as much. It continues to trend in the right direction for us."
In 2000, Gore pulled out of Ohio and poured resources into Florida, only to see his hopes for the presidency die after the 37-day recount battle that was ended by the Supreme Court. George W. Bush's official margin was 537 votes.
Kerry ultimately put more emphasis on Ohio in 2004, but only when it was clear that his best efforts in Florida were likely to fall short. Growing Republican strength and Bush's popularity in the state resulted in an easy victory for the president, 52 to 47 percent.
In 2002, Democrats tried to make a run at then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was seeking a second term, only to get swamped by massive Republican turnout. Two years ago, when Democrats were gaining substantial ground nationally, Republican Charlie Crist easily won election to succeed Bush as governor by the same 52 to 47 percent as in the 2004 presidential campaign.
The candidates are paying considerable attention to the state. McCain began his week in Florida, and Obama ended his week here. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is in the state this weekend, and Obama will return to the Tampa area next week to prepare for the first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday in Oxford, Miss.
To date, Obama has made a far larger investment in Florida. He spent at least $6 million and as much as $8 million on television ads over the summer while McCain was not advertising at all. McCain's advisers count themselves lucky that, during those months, Obama was not able to improve his standing in any notable way, at least if the polls are accurate.
"That's the ugly story," said a Florida Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to provide a candid assessment of the state. "He spent more than $8 million in Florida and McCain never went up and he lost ground."
Obama also has put an enormous organization in place. He has 50 offices in the state and more than 100,000 active volunteers, according to campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro. The Obama campaign will not provide the number of paid staffers in the state, but a Democratic strategist familiar with the operation said there are at least 300, perhaps as many as 350.
Obama's team believes that the only way to win Florida in November is by producing an electorate that is far more Democratic than that in past races. They are targeting 600,000 African Americans who are registered to vote but who do not regularly turn out on Election Day.
Obama's team also sees considerable potential in a pool of potential voters -- younger Floridians, Hispanics, African Americans and newly arrived suburban voters -- who are not registered. Democrats have gained more new voters this year in Florida than Republicans, although not by the margins they have seen in some other states.
Judging from two Obama rallies in Florida on Saturday -- the first at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and the second in Jacksonville, the African American community in Florida is enormously enthusiastic about the senator's candidacy. But the campaign's job will be to translate that into a significant outpouring of voters Nov. 4.
There are three keys to the state. First, Obama must produce the kind of huge margins in South Florida that have been the key to Democratic success in the past. Second, he must avoid a poorer-than-normal showing for Democrats in conservative northern Florida. Finally, he must win the battle for voters across the Interstate 4 corridor in central Florida.
"If he wins the Tampa market, he probably wins the state," Beattie said.
But a Democratic strategist said he remained worried because Republicans were beginning to come home to McCain. "Obama should be doing better on the I-4 than he currently is in the public polling. He's not doing worse among Bubba than we thought," the strategist said, referring to white, working-class Southerners. "The problem is he should be doing better with change voters on the I-4."
There are other obstacles. Whether he can ultimately win white voters in adequate numbers in northern Florida is still in question. Along Florida's west coast, he will try to woo retirees from states such as Michigan and Ohio, the same kind of voters who rejected him in overwhelming numbers in those states in the primaries against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). In South Florida, he will have to overcome some resistance in the Jewish community.
At a pair of fundraisers in Miami on Friday, Obama made a special plea to his supporters to help turn out their communities in what he called "the wonderful tapestry that is South Florida."
He urged Cuban Americans to go into Little Havana and tell voters there: "I know that you may have voted Republican in the past, but this time we need a change, and Barack Obama is my guy. He believes in liberty for the Cuban people. He wants to try to pursue it in new ways in the 21st century."
He asked Jewish voters to go into their communities, as well. "You've got to say, 'Listen, let me explain to you: This guy has always been a friend of Israel. Don't believe those nasty e-mails [saying the opposite]. He will never sacrifice Israel's security.' "
The battle over the next six weeks will pit Obama's ground game against a McCain campaign that will finally be airing television commercials and tapping into the strength of a state Republican Party and Republican National Committee that have proved so effective in recent Florida votes.
Republicans see themselves holding the state in November, but not without a fight.