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Florida at center of tug-of-war between McCain, Obama

No one should be surprised that John McCain and Barack Obama are campaigning in Florida today. Or that Joe Biden is finishing up a three-day Sunshine state bus tour, while Sarah Palin may be in Pasco County on Saturday.

As much as Obama has expanded the electoral battleground into formerly solid Republican states, Tim Russert's maxim still holds: Florida, Florida, Florida. Because if McCain loses those 27 electoral votes, Obama is the next president.

Florida Republicans are working overtime to prevent that, but they're in a strange new world. For the first time in decades, Republicans are up against a far bigger and better funded Democratic campaign in Florida.

"It's going to be very, very close. We're doing everything we possibly can do to carry the state,'' said state Republican chairman Jim Greer, who remains optimistic McCain will win. "It's unfortunate but the Obama campaign has financial resources that the world has never seen before. Not having the resources to be on TV as much as (McCain) needs to be is a great disadvantage."

Gov. Charlie Crist was set to film a TV ad for McCain on Tuesday night, but Obama has been dominating the airwaves.

The Democratic nominee ran nearly 18,909 ads in Florida from Oct. 6 to Oct. 26, while the Nielsen Co. says McCain ran 5,702. From Sunday to Monday, McCain boosted his Florida TV traffic more than 300 percent, but still aired fewer than half as many spots as Obama.

On top of that, Obama has nearly 500 paid organizers in Florida — about 10 times as many as McCain — and counts more than 230,000 volunteers.

The rolling average of the latest Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows Obama leading by 3.3 percentage points, and some Democratic strategists think their voter mobilization is so strong they can win if they head into Election Day lagging McCain by a point or two.

"This is the best field organization put together at least since the 1976 Carter campaign,'' said Jon Ausman, a Democratic National Committee member from Tallahassee. "The early voting is going so heavily in our direction it's going to way offset the losses we normally suffer in the absentee ballots."

Through Monday, nearly 20 percent of the electorate — more than 2.3-million people — had voted with mail-in absentee ballots or at early voting locations. No one knows how those Floridians voted, but so far 115,418 more Democrats have voted than Republicans. More than 350,000 independent and minor-party voters also have cast ballots.

In other words, by Election Day Democrats could have significantly more votes in the bank than Republicans.

Republican consultant Brett Doster, a veteran of both Bush-Cheney campaigns in Florida, said Republicans went into Election Day 2000 with about 100,000 more Republican votes cast than Democratic votes and that advantage rose to 150,000 in 2004.

Still, Doster said that last-minute absentee votes will likely narrow the Democratic edge in early votes and that McCain is positioned to win the state thanks to the Florida GOP's long-tested voter turnout machine.

"It could go either way right now, but I still think McCain edges Obama,'' Doster said, noting that the Obama campaign's Florida efforts are paying off even if they lose the Sunshine State. "They're forcing McCain to burn resources here that they could be spending elsewhere."

Obama has raised $14.5-million from Florida, and McCain $13.8-million.

Republicans have been honing their vaunted get-out-the-vote operation for years, and it typically provides a two- or three-percent advantage.

That's no longer a sure thing given the scope of the Obama operation in this state.

"Something is going on here. I'm seeing the same excitement that we had in 2000,'' state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, said Tuesday, while riding a bus through Florida with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

Many Republican leaders remain confident. McCain's "Joe the plumber" attacks on Obama's plan to raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000 a year is resonating, they say, and the grass roots Republican activists are energized and active.

"I feel very, very good. In 2004, I was going to phone banks, and I would walk out and say … we're going to lose this,'' said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, county co-chairman of the McCain campaign, recounting the unenthusiastic Republicans he would often hear. "It's 180 degrees difference from 2004. The media is missing this Palin story, and seem to think Palin is a drag. But she has got our base fired up."

Buzz Jacobs, McCain's southeastern manager, said the Florida campaign has already spoken in person or by phone to 25 percent more voter contacts than Bush-Cheney in 2004. He noted that Florida Republicans have a history of outperforming the polls.

Days before the 2004 election, a Fox News poll showed Sen. John Kerry leading President Bush by 5 points, and a CNN/Gallup poll showed Kerry up one point. Bush ended up carrying Florida by 5 points.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Florida at center of tug-of-war between McCain, Obama 10/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2008 3:23pm]

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