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This election, Pasco's bellwether status didn't hold

Barack Obama had a 4,800-vote advantage among early and absentee voters. But Election Day voters leaned the other way.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Barack Obama had a 4,800-vote advantage among early and absentee voters. But Election Day voters leaned the other way.

Over the past two decades, Pasco became known for two things: The election results came in the earliest of anywhere in Florida, and they almost invariably indicated the mood of voters beyond Pasco.

But John McCain's success here last week has shaken the county's reputation as a bellwether.

The results arrived first again Tuesday — but they were opposite the national and state results. Barack Obama solidly won Florida in securing the White House, but McCain carried Pasco by 7,700 votes.

No Democrats won county elections, either.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, had told recent campaign crowds that as Pasco went, so went the presidential election. He still clung to Pasco's bellwether status late on election night. But the more he thought about it, the veteran politician came to another conclusion.

"I don't think it is a bellwether anymore," Fasano said later in the week. "I think the county has changed to become a much more conservative county than it was."

Not everyone agrees — particularly local Democratic Party leaders, who say it takes more than one election to break the tradition. McCain's 51 percent support in Pasco was down from President Bush's 54 percent in 2004.

But Democrats' own planning suggests they recognize a shift has occurred. Pasco Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Morano, despite having maintained victory was possible, said state strategists had forecast that Obama would lose Pasco by 10 percentage points, almost triple the final margin.

Morano and other Democrats said they need to find and prepare better candidates. Most Democrats seeking county office faced fundraising shortfalls. Morano said the party should have promoted down-ballot candidates earlier — and held them more accountable.

"We may be a little tougher the next time around with a candidate, and letting them know what they need to do to win," Morano said.

Some had difficult personal holes to overcome, such as elections supervisor candidate Pat Carroll, who had not voted in several recent elections.

"Democrats did not do a great job of recruiting candidates. They didn't do a great job of providing alternatives," said County Commissioner Michael Cox, Pasco's most prominent elected Democrat.

Central Pasco came in big for McCain

The Republican Party organization remained more robust than Democrats', even in bad times.

Foreclosures have roiled the county. The Republican name is tattered nationally. Democrats ran a surprisingly vibrant effort locally to turn out early voters. But it gave Obama only a temporary cushion — and none at all for most local Democrats.

Obama had a 4,800-vote advantage among the early and absentee voters. But McCain picked up 12,500 more votes than Obama among those who came to the polls Tuesday.

The GOP turnout operation chugged, particularly in the newer suburbs of central Pasco. Unlike Democrats, the state and county Republican parties operated a busy campaign office in a Lutz strip center.

The heart of the county gave McCain almost 5,200 votes more than Obama — two-thirds of McCain's margin in Pasco.

Pasco GOP chairman Bill Bunting said Pasco remains a bellwether. It is in the Tampa Bay region, a swing area crucial to winning the state. The mix of transplants from the Midwest and Northeast make for a diverse mix of voters, he said.

In fact, Pasco mirrored the state in supporting the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Democrats didn't fare well in their lower-profile races elsewhere, either.

Democratic Party leaders expect to expand on tactics like encouraging early voting. Given that voters in a few central Pasco neighborhoods like Meadow Pointe went for Obama, Morano said Democrats can find success there.

Not that the GOP will cede any turf without a fight, especially with Gov. Charlie Crist's 2010 re-election campaign around the corner.

"If you look at the way Charlie Crist runs a campaign and the way John McCain ran the campaign, those are two different campaigns," Bunting said. "Charlie Crist is not going to let that happen."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

This election, Pasco's bellwether status didn't hold 11/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 1:31pm]
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