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The Endgame in Florida

By E. J. Dionne
Monday, October 27, 2008

ORLANDO -- Florida provides the appropriate closing metaphor for the 2008 campaign.

If John McCain were on a clear path to victory, there would be no campaign here at all. Yet there was McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, battling on yesterday across the state's crucial central corridor in Tampa and Kissimmee. Come Wednesday, Bill Clinton will campaign with Barack Obama -- the former president's first appearance with the Democratic nominee -- at an evening rally here.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of South Florida spoke for many of her fellow Democrats: "People are so excited that we have a presidential campaign that is still here." Translation: She and others in her party are amazed that Obama has a real chance to carry this state.

The fact that McCain is on the defensive here and in such a broad swath of Republican territory is emblematic of the 2008 endgame. It is a sign of the extent to which Obama has out-organized and out-strategized McCain, and it's an indication of how almost all the issues have moved against the GOP.

Of all of the now-competitive red states, Florida is the one in which Obama started at the steepest disadvantage.

The state's decision to move up its primary in violation of Democratic Party rules -- creating what Rep. Robert Wexler, another South Florida Democrat, calls its "non-primary primary" that Obama felt obligated to skip -- meant that the eventual nominee got a late start here.

Florida, home to so many retirees, has a median age that is three years older than that of the nation, and seniors have been especially resistant to Obama.

As a result, said Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who has worked on statewide and congressional races here, "I thought for quite a while that McCain had his hands on this state."

Obama dissented from this view. He has made repeated visits here, advertised heavily while McCain was hoping he wouldn't have to fight for the state, and built what Wasserman Schultz called "the best and most comprehensive grass-roots organization that I have ever seen."

"They have offices in places that have never seen a presidential campaign," she said in an interview, pointing to the campaign's work in Immokalee, a heavily Latino community in the Everglades area.

As Obama laid the groundwork for winning the state, events conspired against McCain and so did some of his own decisions.

"If there is a state in the country where the vice presidential choice will be determinative, it is Florida," Wexler said in a phone conversation. Obama's choice of Joe Biden, he said, was seen "particularly among seniors as a responsible exercise in sound judgment." The choice of Palin, by contrast, "was an unqualified negative for McCain in South Florida." Traditionally Democratic Jewish voters, some of whom had been reluctant to support Obama, began coming home.

Then came the collapse of the stock market, which had an especially dramatic effect here. "You have seniors who are living what I call 'no-margin-for-error lives,' " Castellanos said. "The slightest tremor in their lives just rocks them. . . . When this economic meltdown occurred, you saw a lot of seniors move. "

But even before the financial crisis, said David Axelrod, Obama's top strategist, Florida's particular economic problems were already moving younger families Obama's way, too. "While the whole country is struggling, Florida has felt the sting of the economic downturn even more," he said, citing job losses and the state's large home-foreclosure problem. "People will tolerate only so much red ink in their own lives."

Wasserman Schultz argued that the state's image as a haven for retirees leads outsiders to underestimate the importance of the "surge of working families" into Florida in recent years. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Tampa, said Obama's economic arguments have found resonance in her "diverse working-class" district, particularly his emphasis on expanding health coverage and his criticisms of McCain's support for partially privatizing Social Security.

In the face of these pressures, even Republican bastions are starting to crumble. The state's large Cuban American electorate is a case in point. Castellanos, himself Cuban American, said that while older immigrants from Cuba will continue to vote Republican, younger Cuban Americans are now open to the Democrats and Obama.

McCain may yet hang on to Florida. But the fact that he is struggling so hard, so late, is a sign of how Obama's organizational and fundraising prowess has changed the nation's political map and how drastically the economic crisis could alter the contours of American politics.

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