As Mitt Romney ramps up his campaign in must-win Florida, he faces a daunting reality.
For 10 months, President Barack Obama has been steadily building a voter mobilization army here and now has about 100 paid staffers, 27 field offices and thousands of volunteers working almost every day to deliver Florida's 29 electoral votes. A click on Romney's Florida campaign website Thursday found no upcoming events in the state, while Obama's site showed 194 events within 40 miles of downtown Tampa.
Even in the face of that Obama campaign juggernaut, however, optimism abounds among Republicans across Florida. Veteran activists see the start of a Florida campaign operation far more robust than John McCain's anemic effort four years ago, and they see a Republican electorate fired up to defeat Obama.
"We've got volunteers everywhere, and I'm not blowing smoke,'' said Cindy Graves, a Republican activist in Jacksonville who leads the Florida Federation of Republican Women. "The difference between 2008 with (John) McCain and 2012 — I could cry with relief. The people running the Florida campaign today are professional, they're sharp, they're disciplined. It's like we have grownups in the room, people who know what they're doing and lots of enthusiasm from volunteers."
In a departure from past presidential campaigns in Florida, the Romney campaign and Republican National Committee are basing their headquarters for turning out voters in Tampa, rather than in Tallahassee with the state GOP. The "Victory" headquarters on Harbour Island just opened and is a two-minute drive from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where Romney will accept the nomination in August.
"Placing the office in Tampa makes it easier to focus on the all-important I-4 corridor," said Molly Donlin, director of Romney's Florida campaign. "It also shows a willingness to think outside the box and not just do what every other presidential campaign in Florida has done."
Obama won Florida by less than 3 percentage points in 2008 after mounting the largest statewide campaign operation ever seen here. The effort promises to be even bigger in 2012, but Republicans are banking on a turnout operation more like George W. Bush's formidable 2004 campaign than McCain's.
The latest Florida polls show a dead heat, and both sides understand that if Romney loses Florida it's next to impossible for him to win the White House.
"President Obama is going to have unlimited cash and resources, but we're not going to be outworked or outhustled. We've carried over a lot of enthusiasm from our primary win, and we're going to build a smart, capable and efficient campaign," Donlin said.
By Sunday, the campaign expects to have 23 "Victory" offices open across the state. These are opened by the Republican National Committee to coordinate voter mobilization efforts with the Romney campaign and state party. At least another 20 should be up and running by July, when roughly 40 Romney and Republican National Committee staffers should be on the ground in Florida.
"He's got a ways to go before it's a fully functioning organization, but he's doing all the right things," Hillsborough Republican chairman Art Wood said of the Romney Florida campaign, noting that he already sees far better coordination between the campaign and the state party.
In Polk County, GOP vice chairman Steve Maxwell said campaign offices already are open in Lakeland and Winter Haven and another is coming soon in Lakes Wales, with volunteers phoning tens of thousands of voters every week.
"We have people coming in off the streets every day. I'm confident you're going to see an equal, if not greater, number of people volunteering for Romney as for Obama,'' Maxwell said. "The grass roots is beginning to surface now, but we've been working at building up our local infrastructure for several years now and we're just now implementing our plan. It's a much more unified effort this time and we've got three years of Obama's record motivating people."
Romney overwhelmingly won Florida's Republican primary in January, mainly by burying his rivals with negative TV ads. The campaign's grass roots effort largely consisted of mailing absentee ballots to supporters, rather than the kind of person-to-person communication the Obama campaign is focused on.
"President Obama's supporters across the Sunshine State are taking action every day to make sure their friends and neighbors know about the president's record of fighting to build a fair economy for the middle class," said Eric Jotkoff, press secretary for Obama for America Florida.
Now that the primary is behind him, Romney's campaign will focus on organizing supporters.
"Republican enthusiasm is through the roof in Florida. We cannot keep up with the demands for literature, bumper stickers, yard signs and offers to volunteer," Donlin said. "Our biggest challenge right now is catching up the organic support that has been building throughout the state at the grass roots level, but it's a good problem to have."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]