The final push to squeeze every last vote out of Florida brought Barack Obama to Ybor City on Thursday, where the president exhorted thousands of supporters to help him "finish what we started in 2008."
"Florida, I believe in you. I'm asking you to keep believing in me. And if you're willing to work with me, and knock on some doors with me, make some phone calls with me, vote for me," Obama told the boisterous overflow crowd estimated at 8,500 at Centennial Park. "We'll win Hillsborough County again. We'll win Florida again. We'll win this election again."
Republicans recently have been talking up the possibility of Obama scaling back his efforts in Florida because Romney has the edge in America's biggest battleground state. But the best indicator of where campaigns see the most competitive races is where they spend their time in the closing days of the campaign.
On that score it's clear both campaigns see Florida's 29 electoral votes within reach: Obama campaigned in South Florida on Tuesday, Ann Romney campaigned throughout the state Wednesday and Thursday, Obama flew into Tampa on Thursday, and Mitt Romney on Saturday will campaign in Land O'Lakes, Pensacola and Kissimmee. Then on Monday, Obama returns to Orlando to campaign alongside former President Bill Clinton.
The average of recent Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows Romney leading Florida by just 1.7 percentage points, but Democrats are confident the Obama campaign's massive voter-mobilization effort gives it an advantage.
"We have 500,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans after our good voter registration," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, noting that Democrats in Florida this year have dramatically cut the traditional GOP advantage in absentee ballots. "And there are 250,000 more registered minorities than there were four years ago. We continue to have the ability to get to 50.1 percent in Florida, and I feel good about it. Is it going to be close? Of course. It's Florida."
In Tampa on Thursday, the president touted his second-term agenda: ending tax breaks for companies that send jobs overseas, cutting oil exports, reducing the deficit "in a balanced way," recruiting more math and science teachers and improving education and job training. He accused Romney of wanting to return to the policies that preceded the recession and of hoping voters develop "Romnesia" and forget about what Romney had been saying through most of the race.
"Tampa, I want you to know this. If you're starting to get a temperature — your ears are ringing, your eyes are blurry — you're showing symptoms, you can't remember what you just said last week; if you start thinking that maybe Gov. Romney wanted to save the auto industry even though he wrote an op-ed saying, 'Let Detroit go bankrupt'; if there's a sudden fuzziness when it comes to the policies on your website, don't worry, because this is a curable condition," Obama joked. "And Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions."
More than 1 million Floridians have already cast absentee ballots, and where Republicans had a nearly 16-percentage point advantage on those mail ballots in 2008, Democrats this year have trimmed it to a 5 percentage-point GOP advantage so far.
Early voting — where voters show up at designated locations, as opposed filling out absentee ballots — begins Saturday, and Democrats will make a big push to bank as many early votes as possible.
Chanting "Vote Now! Vote Now!," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, urged the crowd to vote as soon as possible and touted a "Souls to the Polls" early voting program planned for Sunday.
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now registered as an independent and backing Obama, noted that Obama's stimulus package helped keep hundreds of teachers and emergency workers employed, and awarded Florida $2.4 billion to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, money rejected by Gov. Rick Scott.
"Ideology got it, and they stopped it," Crist said. "We've got to make sure we have the president's back because he's had ours over and over and over again."
To highlight early voting, the president stopped in Chicago on Thursday to cast his vote.
"I can't tell you who I'm voting for, it's a secret ballot," Obama joked, "but Michelle says she voted for me."
Republicans remain at least as confident as the Obama campaign about Florida, noting that they have a much stronger grass roots operation than four years ago, when Obama won Florida by less than 3 percentage points.
"Any Obama organizer touting a superior ground game in Florida is completely out of touch with reality," said Brett Doster, a senior adviser on the Romney Florida campaign. "The Romney Victory Team has 49 field offices operating at capacity every day, over 140 paid staffers — four dedicated solely to Hispanic outreach — and have just made our 10 millionth voter contact. But regardless of organizations, we will win because Mitt Romney has the better message about how to get Florida's economy back on track."
A key element in the president's path to re-election is to earn considerably more votes from women than Romney. Along with touting his accomplishments on health care, ending the war in Iraq and Wall Street reforms, the president alluded to Republican leaders wanting to restrict abortions.
"I don't think any politician in Washington, most of whom are male, should be making health care decisions for women," he said. "Women can make those decisions themselves."
Ultimately, the president said, the election is about trust.
"When you elect a president, you're counting on somebody you can trust to fight for you, who you can trust to do what they say they're going to do, who can trust — that you can trust to make sure that when something unexpected happens, he or she is going to be thinking about your families, your future. Trust matters. And, Florida, you know me. You know I say what I mean and I mean what I say."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]