Obama Surges Ahead in Florida

Election '08

A worldwide economic crisis can make a lot of difference to a voter. Or at least it has done to Isabelle Murawski. For the past two elections, the pensioner has reliably voted for George W Bush, casting her ballot in Florida's Broward County, one of the epicentres of the voting debacle that saw Bush win the White House in 2000.

But now Murawski is going to vote for Barack Obama. 'I am supporting Obama, I think,' she said, while strolling in Florida's warm sunshine in the coastal resort town of Hollywood. 'It's the economy first and foremost. Everyone I know is worried about their pensions.'

Murawski is not alone in switching sides in Florida. In the past few weeks the polls in this vital southern swing state have taken a remarkable turn. After long months of the Republican candidate John McCain being comfortably ahead, Obama has suddenly surged forward. Four recent polls have put Obama between four and eight points ahead in Florida. It is a hugely significant development. McCain almost certainly cannot win the keys of the White House without Florida's 27 precious electoral college votes. 'There is clearly something going on. There has been a solid swing to Obama,' said Professor Lance DeHaven-Smith, who is a political scientist at Florida State University.

The development mirrors a trend nationwide. In the face of the economic disaster gripping America, the presidential race has undergone yet another about-face. Voters have broken narrowly but firmly for Obama, and McCain has seen his support wither in the face of the crisis. Polls consistently show Obama with a solid four or five-point lead. Previously long-shot Republican states like North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia have suddenly become Democratic possibilities. In the meantime, McCain's campaign has decided to pull out of Michigan, writing off the state in favour of easier targets.

But it is Florida that all eyes have now turned to. An Obama victory there would virtually assure that America gets its first ever black President. It would also go some way to purging the dreadful scars still lingering in the Democratic psyche after the disputed 2000 election result. No Democrat can ever forget the saga of the hanging chads - the spoiled ballot papers that led to a protracted recount and a United States Supreme Court ruling which ensured that Bush won both Florida and the White House.

Now eight years of Republican rule could end in the very same state where they began. 'I think a lot of Democrats in Florida would finally feel vindicated,' said DeHaven-Smith.

The key to winning in Florida is a 132-mile stretch of busy road known as Interstate 4, or I-4. The road cuts across the heart of the state, stretching from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach. It is both the literal and metaphorical middle ground of Florida politics. It bridges the gap between the Republican core of northern Florida, which is very much a part of the conservative Deep South, and the large Democrat-leaning cities of the south-east, such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

This so-called 'I-4 corridor' is home to most of Florida's independent voters and is some of the hardest contested political turf in the whole of America. At its heart is the sprawling city of Orlando and the fierce battle that is being waged there seems to be being won by Obama. Certainly Terrence Golden, a kitchen manager at an Orlando restaurant, is backing Obama. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of transplants to the I-4 corridor who have come south seeking jobs and sunshine and was in no doubt as to where his vote was going. 'McCain is more of the same - just look at all the mess they have created already. We need a change,' he said.

Obama is hoping to capitalise on a lot more voters like Golden. So far, the effort has gone well. His campaign has spent vast amounts of cash in Florida and set up a large organisation to register new voters, especially among blacks and students. It has 350 paid staff in the state, compared with 70 working for McCain. It has outspent its rival by $8m. Obama's political ads have saturated the airwaves and surrogate campaigners, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and General Wesley Clark, have regularly been on the stump, along with Obama himself.

It has worked. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans by some half a million. The campaign has registered 110,000 new black voters alone - they support Obama over McCain by a margin of nine to one.

'The Obama campaign has been extremely effective and aggressive in Florida. Now, turnout on election day is the key thing that could decide it. Will these new voters actually come to the polls?' said Professor Susan McManus, of the University of South Florida.

Other factors have also played into Obama's hands. Florida's large population of retired pensioners has been acutely sensitive to the recent financial crisis, worrying over pension funds and nest eggs. The state, much of which seems covered in new housing, has also been badly hit by foreclosures. In both cases, voters seem to be putting the blame squarely at the feet of the Republican party.

Obama has also made strong inroads among Florida's Hispanic population. Traditionally, the state's Spanish-speaking citizens have been Republican-friendly and dominated by Cuban-Americans with hawkish foreign policy views. However, in recent years Florida has seen a large influx of non-Cuban Hispanics, among whom Obama has been performing strongly. As a result, recent polls have Obama winning Florida's Hispanic vote by 49 to 43 per cent. A wave of Spanish-language ads will surely have helped that process.

There is little doubt that Florida's Republicans are in something of a panic about recent developments. Last week leading party officials met in the city of Tallahassee for a secret war council to discuss how to fight back. The hour-long meeting, hosted by Florida's Republican party chairman Jim Greer, was described by one official as 'tense'. That was music to the ears of the Democrats, who are now plotting to solidify their lead and turn once reliably red Florida firmly blue. 'If the Democrats win Florida, it will be like gravy for them. It will be the icing on the cake,' said McManus.

But it is clearly far too early for Obama supporters to declare a Florida victory. The remarkable 2008 election has had a staggering array of twists and turns. The only certain thing appears to be: expect the unexpected. It could all easily turn around again in the last four weeks of the campaign. Back on the streets of Hollywood, support for McCain is still very easy to find. Jack Smile owns a small jewellery and gift shop on the main street. He has run it for 13 years and is suffering in the current economic crisis.

But Smile is sticking with McCain, seeing Obama as too inexperienced and nave compared against McCain's long record in office and his Vietnam war heroics. 'Obama does not have the experience like McCain. McCain has fought for this country. He has undertaken real service,' Smile said.

Such comments serve as a reminder that McCain's campaign and core message still resonate deeply in Florida. The state has a huge population of military veterans, who represent one of McCain's core areas of demographic support. It also boasts a large Jewish population, often retired, who favour McCain for his consistently hawkish foreign policy and staunch support of Israel.

McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, the Alaskan governor, as a running mate has also been a big hit in the state, especially after her feisty and reputation-saving performance in the vice-presidential debate last week. Palin has drawn huge crowds across Florida and her folksy charm and strong religious background have been a boost to the state's evangelicals who are key to the Republicans' 'get out the vote' efforts on election day. Smile was a big fan of Palin. 'After he picked Palin, that kind of persuaded me. She talks to the people. She is very appealing,' he said.

Such a view is common in Florida, which is why no one is declaring that the battle for the state is over. 'It could easily swing back and forth again,' said McManus. McCain's camp still has formidable resources to deploy. Although outnumbered in terms of staff, it has many more campaign offices in Florida than Obama. It also raised twice as much cash in the state as Obama in August, a sure sign of strong support when people put their money where they say their vote is. Republicans also have tactical options left to them as the campaign enters its final stages.

Many experts expect the party's formidable attack machine to crank up issues around Obama's former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, in the last couple of weeks of electioneering. That could have a big effect in a southern state like Florida, where racial prejudices can still play a role at the polls, and where Wright's black nationalism is likely to scare many white voters.

'You have to think that will happen. It is an obvious card to play, and if I am thinking of it, you can bet highly paid Republican campaign advisers have thought of it too,' said Professor Aubrey Jewett, a political expert at the University of Central Florida.

There is also the looming spectre of a repeat of the debacle of 2000. Florida's voting laws and the technologies inside the voting booths have chopped and changed since that election ended up being decided in the courts. The state has moved from paper ballots to computers, and back to paper again. But few experts think the system is flawless or 100 per cent trustworthy.

Any close election in Florida, or one marred by dirty tricks, could easily end up a disaster. Indeed, both sides have already accused the other of dubious activities regarding voter registration.

'We are likely to see a lot of confusion at the polls, and in a close election that could be a real problem,' said DeHaven-Smith, raising the prospect of a possible return to the law courts after election day. That seems almost unimaginable. Certainly a strong Obama supporter like Golden does not want to think about it. He was confident of a Democratic win in the state. 'Obama, no drama!' he joked, repeating an Obama campaign slogan.

But that is likely to prove a futile hope. When the White House itself is at stake and when Florida could make or break a presidential campaign, drama is likely to be the norm, not the exception.

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