SARASOTA — What's a Democrat like Sen. Barack Obama doing in a county like Sarasota?
"You can do it, Sarasota. You can do it, Florida. We can decide it right here in five days' time,'' he told 13,000 people Thursday in a county that hasn't backed a Democrat for president since Franklin Roosevelt.
Sarasota has been turning more and more Democratic lately, and Obama drew about four times as many people as Sen. John McCain did in the same community a week earlier.
But the rally also underscored what makes Obama's campaign so different from past presidential campaigns: He's working even in the most reliably Republican areas of the state, opening offices and organizing volunteers in such conservative areas as Sun City Center in southern Hillsborough County and Chipley, near Alabama.
"One of the mistakes we've made in the past is not reaching into some of these really growing swing communities,'' said Steve Schale, Obama's Florida campaign manager. "It's not necessarily about winning every place like Sarasota, it's about coming in and doing reasonably well. The best way to win somebody's vote is to come to their town and ask for it."
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, the rare Florida Democrat who competes in such areas of Florida, noted that he and Joe Biden on Sunday will campaign together in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Volusia County.
"Contrast that in 2004,'' Nelson said. "The big difference was that John Kerry spent most of his time in the last few days in South Florida. This time, Obama and Biden are all over the state."
Republicans understand that if Obama wins Florida, he wins the election. They are ramping up efforts to hold onto Florida's 27 electoral votes. The McCain campaign launched a new ad featuring Charlie Crist on Thursday.
"John McCain's uniquely qualified to lead our nation through a crisis. A reformer, a maverick, he'll fight out of control spending and keep our taxes down,'' says the popular governor, looking into the camera. "John McCain never quits, and he'll always fight for you. Join me November 4th in voting for John McCain."
On Saturday, Sarah Palin is scheduled to lead rallies in New Port Richey, Ocala and Polk City.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to send their biggest guns into America's biggest battleground state. After a week loaded with Florida campaign appearances by Biden, Obama and Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is schedule to campaign in Miami and Orlando on Saturday.
On top of that, Al and Tipper Gore are scheduled to spend Friday in the Sunshine State. They will be in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, ground zero for the Florida election meltdown that helped cost him the presidency eight years ago.
Florida is the ultimate heartbreak state for Democrats, who four years ago felt confident they would avenge their 537-vote loss in 2000 but then fell short. This year, given their confidence in the Obama campaign and enthusiasm from rank and file Democrats, Florida could deliver even greater heartbreak if Republicans keep up their winning streak.
"If Obama doesn't win, somebody cheated,'' said Margaret Smith, a Fort Lauderdale retiree who said she waited in line three hours to vote earlier this week.
No Democrat should be over-confident, said former Sen. Bob Graham, but organization will make the difference this year.
"There are Obama headquarters in towns like Perry and Chipley that have never seen a presidential candidate, much less an organized campaign, in decades," Graham said. "I've never seen a campaign like this in Florida."
Buzz Jacobs, McCain's campaign manager for the Southeast, dismissed Democrats' claims that Obama is poised to make inroads in traditionally conservative parts of Florida.
"Even on Halloween, Floridians can't be tricked into voting for a candidate who fundamentally believes hard working Americans should redistribute their income to pay for big government programs," he said.
Obama in Sarasota dismissed the attacks on his tax plans that would raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year, saying tax relief should be targeted to the middle class.
"John McCain and Sarah Palin, they call this socialistic. I don't know when they decided that they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness," Obama said. "You know, the next thing they're going to do is find evidence of my communistic tendencies because I shared my toys when I was in kindergarten. Because I split my peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my friend in sixth grade.''
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.
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