It's tough to find a place as politically divided as Hernando County. And, by default, one as politically contested this election season.
In 2000, voters here endorsed Democrat Al Gore. In 2004, they favored Republican President George W. Bush. Both victories were slim.
Same dynamic at the local level. Republicans own federal and state posts, but Democrats control the County Commission.
And this year, the two major parties are separated by fewer than 1,300 registered voters in an election expected to be close and widely considered the most significant in a generation.
Local election observers will tell you the registration margin belies the county's political compass, which leans reasonably conservative.
But Democrats are enjoying a fever of energy this season, even in typically Republican red places. As early voting begins Monday, and as the presidential campaign pushes toward the finish line, it raises the question: What would it take to turn Hernando blue again?
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Jay Rowden feels like he knows the answer.
Together with the well-financed Barack Obama campaign, the Hernando County Democratic chairman is mounting an unprecedented grass roots effort here that emulates the renowned GOP data-driven operation.
Interviews with more than a dozen state and local political officials and observers from both parties, in combination with discussions with voters in recent weeks, indicates that a Democratic presidential victory in Hernando County is more than just possible. And a Democratic victory at the top of the ticket could have a significant effect on races down ballot.
Still, the more likely goal for Hernando Democrats, in the larger scheme of the Florida political landscape, is to keep it close.
"Hernando County is kind of a swing county, even back when Republicans had a larger majority," Rowden said.
Local Democratic officials and the Obama team are taking a two-pronged approach to attract the swing voters necessary to win in November. The county's close party registration puts the race in the hands of independents and depends greatly on which party gets its voters to the polls.
Two paid Obama organizers began working here in July and guide 200 to 250 volunteers who are helping to excavate the several hundred votes that will likely decide the outcome. By comparison, McCain's campaign has invested no dedicated staff in Hernando.
Rowden, 64, is looking at his first presidential election as party leader, and he is spending his energy on an enterprising, yet risky, strategy.
Rowden and party officials analyzed voting patterns dissected by precinct, age and gender to spotlight a specific voting bloc: marginal Republicans.
"One of the swing voter (groups) we've identified are Republicans that have not voted in any Republican primary but have voted at least once in a presidential race," Rowden explained. "We've identified about 10,000 in Hernando County that fall into that category."
Within that classification, the majority are women. "The way we look at it, every Republican vote we can pull to our side puts them down by two," Rowden said. "So that to me is more meaningful in widening the gap and getting Hernando blue."
This is different from the Obama campaign strategy, which is focusing on more traditional independent swing voters and trying to boost the turnout of African-Americans.
"In order to do better than (John) Kerry (in 2004), we've got to turn out a few more voters in Brooksville's African-American communities and retired voters in Spring Hill," said Steve Schale, the Obama campaign's Florida director.
Overshadowed by southern neighbors
This diverse community — part suburban, part rural; part retirement, part family — doesn't get as much attention as its neighbors to the south.
Probably because it's debatable whether Hernando counts as part of the much-hyped Interstate 4 corridor, home to the biggest swing districts in the biggest swing state.
Still, as part of the Tampa Bay media market, voters here see the same paid media (television advertisements and mailings) and free media (newspaper articles and local TV news) as Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county voters.
Obama made the Tampa Bay TV market his second-most saturated area in the country, but it doesn't appear in McCain's top 10.
Schale, the Obama director, knows this area well as the former state party strategist for legislative races. He said he counts Hernando in a group of 14 to 16 battleground counties statewide.
"Hernando has a fierce independent streak with a virtual partisan balance," he said. "It's the kind of place where voters vote for candidates who offer solutions and get things done."
The voter margins in the counties to the south are close, too, but they are also much bigger. It's possible to make the case that Hernando, though often an electoral afterthought because of its small size, is an easier place to test political strategies and win a campaign.
There are no concrete numbers stating Hernando County's presidential preference this year. Party leaders are merely relying on anecdotal evidence.
But a Democratic poll from June — taken before Obama's general election campaign hit full tilt and before the financial crisis worsened — showed Obama faced an initial double-digit deficit.
Pollster Tom Eldon said that margin is surely closer now and noted that other questions indicated a ripe Democratic landscape. The numbers showed voters in this area had a 60 percent negative view of President Bush. A similar portion indicated Florida was moving in the wrong direction.
"This is one of those counties that Obama is not hoping to win, but close that margin," said Eldon, who once lived in Dade City and ran legislative campaigns in the Hernando County area.
GOP not taking this area for granted
Republicans, naturally, scoff at talk of a Democratic victory.
Ana Trinque, the Hernando GOP chairwoman, is fast-talking, sometimes brash and completely confident. She said she is ignoring national polls showing Republicans faltering and Florida polls indicating that Obama holds a 5 percentage-point lead.
"I certainly believe we will keep (the county) Republican and firmly believe McCain will win," she said, also predicting a GOP takeover at the local level. "I don't see how Obama can swing Hernando at this time. Not with what I'm seeing."
Other prominent Hernando Republicans, such as former party chairman Frank Colletti, are more cautious.
"I think the Republicans will do relatively well in Hernando County and on the national level," he said. "It's certainly not going to be a landslide."
Both agree that independents likely will swing the county in either direction, so the party is targeting that specific voting group.
The message to those voters is taxes and the economy. "The Republican Party, we are not going to tax people to death like Obama wants to do," Trinque said.
The chairwoman boasted about aggressive voter outreach efforts, such as precinct door-knocking, phone banks and absentee ballot campaigns. "We have a group that is doing something almost every single day," she said.
Like their competitors, Republican party officials and volunteers are staffing a tent on Cortez Boulevard each weekend.
Just 25 paces separate the two enemy camps. On a recent Saturday, the Republicans closed shop before 3 p.m. because they had already given away all the yard signs they had ordered.
Another tool at Trinque's disposal is the powerful e-mail lists, divided into groups based on topics and interests, that she amassed since taking the helm in 2000. She said the local party now possesses "better tools to identify people and what they like and what they care about to better engage them."
Trinque is less willing to share details about these specifics or how state and local party officials are focusing their attention.
But she enjoys noting the "unprecedented number of Democrats" volunteering and visiting local GOP offices. She said that at least a dozen are working hard for the Republicans.
Earlier this election year, political observers worried about Republicans staying home, but that is no longer a concern, particularly after vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin joined the ticket.
"The party's never been in lockstep, but I don't think there's going to be a problem," said Tom Hogan Sr. of Brooksville, a GOP state committeeman.
Palin energized Spring Hill resident Mary Cooper.
"She's one of us," Cooper said after getting tickets to Palin's recent Clearwater appearance.
She said she had planned to vote Republican from the start, "but now I'm happy about it."
Crummy economy is major factor
For Democrats, hope for victory exists not just in voter data and strategy, but also in the political temperature in Hernando.
The main issue resonating with voters is the nation's crumbling economy. Residents know that story all too well. Ever since the housing boom busted, Hernando has felt the pain. Unemployment now stands at 9 percent, one of the highest rates in the state.
Rachel Hicks, a 25-year-old Brooksville mother of two, knows this firsthand. Her husband recently lost his job and moved to Jacksonville to find work. He comes home one day a week to see his family.
Hicks registered to vote for the first time in September, carrying 1-year-old Lane in one arm and towing 3-year-old Faith with the other.
She registered as a Democrat, and the reason is simple: "Because the economy's down, and we need somebody to bring us back up."
Or take Richard Sklepko, a 53-year-old from Spring Hill who is a registered Republican. He voted for Bush in 2000 but then Kerry in 2004 because he is a ardent opponent of the Iraq war.
Sklepko also feels the economic pinch after losing his collections job. He managed to find new work, but had to commute to Brandon every day.
The high gas prices led to late mortgage payments, and recently he learned his job is being shipped overseas.
He told this story outside a Democratic Party booth, standing next to his 20-year-old son, Michael.
Before he walked away, Sklepko purchased an Obama-Biden T-shirt along with two campaign yard signs, stickers and buttons.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.