Obama Blitzes Florida As Early Voting Starts

James and Shirley Walker check a sample ballot in Plantation, Fla.
James and Shirley Walker check a sample ballot in Plantation, Fla. (By J. Pat Carter -- Associated Press)
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By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

ORLANDO, Oct. 20 -- Barack Obama barnstormed the battleground of Florida on Monday with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and others, as voters began going to the polls in a state that has vexed Democrats in the past two presidential elections.

With a speech in Tampa and a sunset rally here that featured a strongly worded endorsement from Clinton, Obama said it is time to bring "sunshine" to Washington and fix an economic crisis that has hit this state harder than most.

In Tampa, Obama told a crowd at George Steinbrenner Field, where the New York Yankees hold spring training, that the election began on Monday in Florida and in a handful of other states that allow voting before the Nov. 4 election.

Clinton reinforced the message for tens of thousands who jammed an outdoor rally and lined nearby streets: "We have waited for eight long years for change. You don't have to wait any longer. You can vote today."

The Obama campaign is heartened by statistics that it says show that more than 60 percent of those across the country who have taken advantage of early voting are registered as Democrats. Thirty-one states authorize some form of early voting, including such battlegrounds as Ohio and Colorado.

The Obama campaign is newly confident about its chances in Florida against Sen. John McCain even though the state went for George W. Bush in the past two elections.

"I think they're going for broke," said the state's Democratic senator, Bill Nelson. "I think they're pulling out all the stops because they know if McCain doesn't win here, there's no scenario for him to win" the presidency.

"I still think it's going to be close, but the wind is very much at the back of Obama," Nelson said. He described a "new phenomenon in this election, which will be a much higher turnout of minorities and -- get this -- students at the universities. You're going to see a phenomenon occur this time -- almost 100,000 new students have registered at their universities, not their home town."

Senior McCain advisers expressed optimism Monday about their own chances in Florida, saying they remain competitive.

"We understand that the Obama campaign has more staff and more offices and more money," McCain political director Michael DuHaime said, adding that he will take a "battle-tested" corps of volunteers any day.

"We have a program here that has proven effective," he said. "People have been there and done it in presidential elections."

Buzz Jacobs, who runs McCain's southeast region, said 295,000 Republicans have returned absentee ballots in Florida compared with 199,000 for Democrats.

"We are essentially implementing the same successful program that Bush-Cheney used to win Florida in 2004," Jacobs said.

But Democrats say the landscape has changed drastically since then. Florida has the second-highest number of home mortgage foreclosures in the nation, and Obama said 115,000 workers lost their jobs in Florida this year, more than in any other state.

Obama is organizing a "governor's meeting" of executives from other battlegrounds for Tuesday in Palm Beach, Fla., to talk about job growth.

And Clinton may have given him the slogan for the last two weeks of the campaign, turning the Republican chant advocating offshore drilling -- "drill, baby, drill" -- into an economic message of "jobs, baby, jobs." Obama told her: "I think you started something."

Besides Clinton, Obama is calling on wife Michelle Obama and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for three days of rallies across the state.

Florida voters already are turning out in large numbers.

At the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, people waited for more than four hours for a ballot. Officials gave many people numbers to indicate their place in line and allowed them to come back later. Officials also let people come out of the muggy weather and wait in the library's auditorium, where they were called in groups of 10 to vote.

Officials blamed the long waits on new machines that printed paper ballots, replacing old touch-screen voting machines, and on the four-page ballot. They also blamed the delays on the overwhelming turnout.

"I've never seen it like this at this location," said Brenda C. Snipes, supervisor of elections for Broward County.

Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Mary Pat Flaherty in Washington and Steven A. Holmes in Florida contributed to this report.

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