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If we decide the election, who are we?

The National Spotlight is again on the Tampa Bay area. Maybe you didn't notice because it's so bright out.

It's not just baseball and, around the corner, the Super Bowl. We could pick the next president. Some quick math:

Florida has 27 electoral votes, the largest of any swing state. Obama's surge in the polls has heightened the stakes in Florida, a battleground state that a Republican candidate simply cannot afford to lose.

And Florida is playing out predictably, with Obama leading in the southeast and Sen. John McCain leading in the north.

That means the Interstate 4 corridor, where 38 percent of the state's independent voters are clustered, will be the hinge in this swing state.

The cities to the east are proving predictable, according to University of Florida political scientist Richard Scher.

The question mark hovers over the western end of the asphalt.

"It's not a stretch," Scher says, "to think it could come down to a few square blocks in Tampa."

If it all comes down to Florida, it all comes down to us.

So, who are we?

In the Tampa Bay area, we live at the vortex of bloodshed and sunshine and amusement and unpredictability, much like it must have been in the early days, before Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, when the first North American exploration by white men was launched right here. Panfilo de Narvaez, 1528.

He had to eat his own horses.

We are diverse racially, economically, politically and ideologically, but the area is not so much a melting pot as it is a collection of tribes situated around a giant pool of saltwater.

We ascend from places like Jamaica and Cuba and Puerto Rico, and hang tiny flags from our rearview mirrors. We descend from states like Ohio and Michigan and Indiana, and unpack our futons and Midwestern values. More and more of us are coming from New Jersey and New York, our kids sporting Long Island blowbacks and white sneakers.

In 2005 alone, 46,226 people from at least 483 counties across the country joined the diaspora and settled around Tampa Bay, in mobile home parks and turn-of-the-century bungalows and McMansions behind big gates, part of an American infrastructure of endless paradox.

We feed our homeless and drive them from public property, thumbs hooked on Tasers.

We convict a Hollywood porn producer named Max Hardcore of obscenity, in a city with more strip clubs than Las Vegas.

One of the most famous of those clubs is barely a mile from where we gather Sundays in the fall to watch the Buccaneers play football.

Sometimes that's not close enough. During the 2005 football season, some entrepreneurs parked a motor home across from the stadium and girls named Ashlee and Carrie and Katrena gave gentlemen $20 lap dances until the cops stopped the fun. All is allowed until it's prohibited in the land of a million checks and balances.

Our cities are brimming with Rhodes scholars and transvestite prostitutes, wiccans and nudists, carnies and Southern Baptists, retirees in golf carts and military personnel from MacDill Air Force Base, where the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are run. Two of the Sept. 11 terrorists blended right in.

We have roughly 1,345 religious congregations that claim roughly 1,080,114 adherents. We have one of the country's largest evangelical churches, and the worldwide headquarters of Scientology, and we share with the world our sweet strawberries, picked by Mexican immigrants who sleep in close quarters.

We drink on average 5.41 cases of beer at home annually, and rank sixth in plastic cup consumption. Nearly half a million of us gather each year to celebrate a fictional pirate invasion, and 60,755 of us have permits to carry concealed weapons.

We have, according to a 2006 UCLA study, the fifth-highest percentage of gay, lesbian and bisexual residents of the top 50 metropolises in the country, behind San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Portland, Ore. We also have a county commission that voted to ban county sponsorship of Gay Pride events.

In August, activists with the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement heckled Barack Obama about ignoring the oppression of African-Americans. Just two months before, and not far away, the Sons of the Confederate Veterans unfurled a 30- by 50-foot Confederate flag near the gateway intersection of I-4 and I-75.

It's one of the largest Confederate flags in the world.

Welcome to Tampa Bay, it seems to say. Excuse our beautiful mess.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

If we decide the election, who are we? 10/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 2:21pm]

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