TALLAHASSEE — Florida Republican leaders hastily convened a top secret meeting this week to grapple with Sen. John McCain's sagging performance in this must-win state.
Their fears were confirmed Wednesday when four new polls showed Sen. Barack Obama leading, a reversal from just a few weeks ago when McCain was opening up an advantage.
The polls come amid a cascade of bad news about the economy, an issue that McCain has struggled with in recent days.
With some grass roots organizers complaining about coordination problems with the campaign, Republican Party chairman Jim Greer gathered top officials at the state headquarters in Tallahassee on Tuesday afternoon. He swore the group to secrecy.
When asked about it by the St. Petersburg Times, Greer confirmed the meeting. He largely declined to discuss what was said, but sought to play down any strife.
Over the course of an hour, described by some as tense, Greer offered a forceful assessment of where McCain stands in Florida and what needs to be done to win in a battleground state that could decide the election.
"I have a responsibility to make sure things are done right, and we win these campaigns," Greer said. "I'm sure everyone in the room understands that I take that responsibility very seriously."
One of the concerns has been the relationship between grass roots volunteers across the state and far fewer paid campaign staffers. Complaints range from not getting yard signs quickly enough to knowing who will speak at events and overall manpower coordination.
"The biggest challenge is communication," said state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who is involved in the campaign but was not at the meeting. She said the Broward County effort is running smoothly but that her overall impression is that state campaign officials are somewhat limited due to national directives.
This friction and fretting goes on all the time in stressful campaigns, and especially when one side's candidate has hit a rough patch, as McCain has. Buzz Jacobs, the campaign's Southeast regional director, who sat in on the meeting, denied any tension and declined comment.
McCain supporter and former Republican Party of Florida chairman Tom Slade said he's been hearing rumblings over the past few weeks that the campaign is not fully utilizing volunteers, though he said that was not the case in Jacksonville.
"I get the sense that on the statewide basis, the grass roots Republicans don't quite feel like they have a natural fit within the McCain organization," Slade said.
The four polls released Wednesday show Obama leading, and for the first time, he has broken the 50 percent approval mark in the biggest battleground state.
What's more, a rolling average of Florida polls shows Obama ahead, albeit barely, for the first time.
• Quinnipiac: Obama leads 51-43.
• InsiderAdvantage/Poll Position: Obama leads 49-46.
• CNN/Time magazine: Obama leads 51-47.
• Suffolk University showed Obama leading 46-42.
• Real Clear Politics average of all Florida polls: Obama up by 3 percentage points.
"The Wall Street meltdown has been a dagger to McCain's political heart," said Peter Brown of the independent Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, who also cited a softening in enthusiasm for McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The Quinnipiac poll, with 5 percent undecided and 1 percent saying they would vote for another candidate, involved 836 likely voters and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. It was conducted Sept. 27-29, after last week's debate, which focused heavily on the economy.
The McCain campaign dismissed the poll findings.
"Between now and Nov. 4th there will be numerous polls, but the only one that matters will be the last one on election night," spokesman Mario Diaz said.
Palin remains a big draw, and the McCain campaign plans to bring her to Clearwater and Fort Myers on Monday, and Jacksonville and Pensacola on Tuesday.
The participants in the Greer meeting included McCain's top Florida staffer, Arlene DiBenigno, as well as RNC staffers by phone from Washington.
Greer, whose hands-on approach has sometimes come across to fellow Republicans as too controlling, has spent the past two years, along with Gov. Charlie Crist, making inroads in the African-American and Hispanic communities. Greer said he wanted to make sure the campaign is adequately tapping those resources, along with state party staffers he has made available. The McCain campaign is housed in the state headquarters.
"It was just to ensure the ship is on its proper course as it relates to working with local party leaders and the grass roots volunteers," Greer said of the meeting. "I felt confident that the campaign is doing that."