Will riled conservatives and depressed Democrats send a message to President Barack Obama and usher in a Republican sweep up and down Florida's beefy ballot in 2010? Or will the nation's largest battleground state buck the national trend and rebuke GOP-controlled Tallahassee instead?
Is the tea party movement surging or boiling over?
As early voting gets under way today, these and other probing questions were put to two of Florida's best political minds: Republican Brett Doster, who led George W. Bush's successful re-election campaign in Florida in 2004, and Democrat Steve Schale, who was at the helm of Obama's victory here in 2008.
Doster and Schale are currently facing off in one of five statewide races on the ballot, the contest for attorney general. Doster is advising Republican Pam Bondi, while Schale is the point man for Democrat Dan Gelber.
Doster predicts a Republican tidal wave Nov. 2.
"This is the biggest surge that I've ever seen in my 16-plus years in politics," Doster said. "Not only are Democrats going to lose the House and Senate, but I firmly believe we will have a 100 percent Republican Cabinet in Florida and pick up as many as four congressional seats. This will be bigger than the wave that occurred in 1994."
Schale dismissed Doster's doomsday scenario for Democrats, arguing that the party's 600,000-voter advantage in Florida will help cushion a stronger Republican turnout. The state has repeatedly defied national tailwinds, he noted, electing Democrat Lawton Chiles as governor in 1994 when the GOP gained control of Congress and Republican Charlie Crist as governor when Democrats took Congress back in 2006.
"We pride ourselves on bucking the national conventional wisdom," Schale said. "Over the last three decades, whatever political wave washes over the country tends to flow the opposite way in governor's races, a trend that I expect will hold true when Florida elects Alex Sink on Nov. 2."
Doster and Schale don't agree on much. But asked to nominate a handful of counties that will play a pivotal role in the Nov. 2 election, Doster and Schale settled on four hubs: Palm Beach, Orange, Sarasota and Duval. Here are some scenes and voices from those counties:
Palm Beach County
From the wealthy country club set in Boca Raton to the working-class in Boynton Beach to the farms in Belle Glade, the more than 840,000 voters in Palm Beach County — the state's third-largest — could prove crucial.
Nearly everyone has a story about a foreclosure on their block and empty stores.
"You can shoot a cannon through Bloomingdale's" at Town Center in Boca Raton, said Paula Dropkin, a retiree and Democrat, while eating lunch at Flakowitz Bagel Inn.
While Flakowitz is steadily packed with customers, a few miles away Mama's N.Y. Pizzeria — open for 20 years — is completely empty at noon on Tuesday.
Customers who used to ring up a $45 tab now stop at one pizza and a 2-liter soda, said owner Robert Behzadi. The single father of two now works seven days a week.
Behzadi says he doesn't always vote — but will pick Republicans this time because when the GOP was in charge "the economy was good."
Hot dog cart vendor Rolf Heinemann has a front row seat to the troubled economy.
"It's not good — most of their business is off by 20 to 30 percent," said 68-year-old Heinemann, owner of Zoey's Hot Dogs. "Some complain it's hard to collect money from customers. The economy is on everybody's mind."
He launched his stand when his courier business lost its best paying client — a homebuilder. The Republican voter hopes his party "can reduce taxes and get government out of our way so businesses can run without these restrictions."
Look to the center of the state to find a rapidly growing Hispanic community and one of the most important swing votes in Florida. The voter rolls lean Democratic, but Orange County is up for grabs. Obama won here by more than 86,000 votes in 2008; Bush lost by only 815 votes in 2004.
Opinions about the 2010 election at a Sedano's supermarket in Orlando come as varied as the fruits in the produce aisle.
Cesar DaCosta, 54, struggled in English to explain his disagreement with Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio over legislation that would grant citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are in college or the military.
"The Republicans say no to everything," said DaCosta, a Democrat. "The students who come here at 5 years old or 7 years old, the kids, are not the problem."
Nelson Alvarez, a 37-year-old computer technician, said he is leaning toward Rubio because "he's more on the level than some of those tea party guys." Alvarez, a Republican, voted for Obama for president.
"It's one of those things you wish you could do over," he said. "I don't think he's to blame for everything, but the things on his agenda have never come up."
Leilani Rojas, 29, expressed similar disappointment.
"I was very excited to vote for Obama, and now it's like, eh," said Rojas. "I don't feel so motivated this time."
Rojas was among the Democrats who sat out the Aug. 24 primary; 346,000 more Republicans than Democrats cast ballots. Polls suggest the GOP still has the momentum.
An artsy Republican enclave on the coast, Sarasota County has been drifting center for years under the influence of socially moderate Midwesterners. More than 44 percent of voters are Republicans, while not quite a third are Democrats.
Republican Rick Scott's pushing hard here: Six times since Labor Day, Scott or his running mate has visited Sarasota or Manatee counties. Sink won Sarasota when she ran for chief financial officer in 2006, and Obama came close in 2008. But this isn't 2008.
Outside a Panera Bread restaurant, a pair of Republicans are plenty frustrated. Michelle Parks, 37, grabs a table as her husband, Jody, 38, is still ordering. Sunshine brought the family with three kids down from central Ohio a year ago. Jody, a custom home builder, beat back advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma, and wanted to live in a place where he could be active. He votes a Republican ticket, he says — not that he's a big fan of Republicans right now.
"Republicans and Democrats — I feel like we've been sold out," he says. In business for himself since he was 18, he wants to see fair regulation and lower taxes. He likes the tea party movement, and prefers Rubio to Crist. He'll vote for Scott, he says, but grudgingly. The attack ads have raised their fears: Who knows if he's honest?
In this traditionally conservative corner of the state, where the military provides a backbone of the economy, it's all about Obama.
Just two years ago, John McCain won by a mere 7,000 votes in Duval County and the region saw a record surge in first-time African-American voters. Now, it's hard to find many Obama sympathizers.
"Obama is running the country into the ground," said Anne Michael, 73, a Republican having her hair styled at the Hair Cuttery in Jacksonville. She says she has never missed an election and this year the choices are grim.
"We have two sorry candidates running for governor," she said. "I would imagine the lesser of the two evils would be Scott."
The distinction couldn't be more pronounced for Wally Butler, a Democrat. He has made up his mind that he's voting for every Republican on the ballot and against every Democrat, including Sink.
"I am going to vote against her because of the train wreck that Democrats have done to the national economy," he said.
He admits Democrats in Washington had their hands full when they took office but their uncertain policies are leaving businesses uncertain about the future, making them reluctant to create new jobs.
"The biggest problem that we have now is the tax cuts are going to expire and the uncertainty with the way health care will be implemented, which is keeping people from hiring — and we need jobs."