Florida may be falling from Obama's grasp

Barack Obama could be on the verge of falling out of contention in Florida.

Despite spending an estimated $8-million on campaign ads in America's biggest battleground state and putting in place the largest Democratic campaign organization ever in Florida, Obama has lost ground over the summer. Florida has moved from a toss-up state to one that clearly leans toward John McCain, fueling speculation about how much longer the Democratic nominee will continue investing so heavily in the state.

Obama can still win Florida despite the polling gains McCain has made since naming Sarah Palin his running mate, and there is no sign Obama is pulling back in Florida yet. Far from it. Obama allies say he has about 350 paid staffers in the state and about 50 field offices, including in places not known as fertile ground for Democrats, such as Sun City Center, Lake City and Sebring.

But for all the attention to Florida from the Obama campaign, there's little tangible evidence it's paying off.

He is farther behind in the state than John Kerry was at this point in 2004, even though McCain began buying Florida TV ads only last week. By this time in 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign had spent $13-million on Florida TV. In the rolling average of Florida polls compiled by the Web site RealClearPolitics.com, Obama has never taken the lead over McCain in Florida, and the latest average shows him behind by 5 percentage points. They were tied in early August.

Four Florida polls came out this week, with one showing a tied race, the others showing McCain leading by 5 to 8 percentage points.

"They've had everything going for them — momentum, enthusiasm, money, a complicit national press, a stiff wind at his back for a long time, and he hasn't been able pull ahead in Florida,'' said Republican strategist Alberto Martinez of Tallahassee. "I think Florida is one of those states that's taken off the board pretty soon, as they start focusing resources on states they can win."

Democrats say that's nonsense.

"Look, except for a little bounce after the Republican convention this race has basically been anywhere from a dead heat to a two- or three-point race all along,'' said Steve Schale, Obama's Florida campaign manager.

"Our job is to stay focused and continue building the largest and most comprehensive campaign organization this state has ever had. Compared to what McCain has on the ground at this point, our operation is far superior," he said.

The McCain campaign, while sounding a lot more upbeat about Florida than a few weeks ago, takes nothing for granted.

"We're certainly not planting a victory flag. I think Florida will be competitive,'' said Buzz Jacobs, McCain's campaign manager for the Southeast. "But the base of our party is energized like it's never been before. I think we are attracting Democrats and independents into our party at a greater rate than we were a few weeks ago. … We are getting some of those Hillary Clinton supporters especially, and I think the Obama campaign is very worried about that."

McCain is scheduled to campaign in Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami on Monday and hold a rally at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday morning. Obama will be in Coral Gables raising money Friday, though no public events are scheduled yet.

"If we don't start seeing more of Obama in Florida it will be a clear sign that, like Bill Clinton in 1992, he will pull his resources out of Florida in the final weeks," said Brian Crowley, a longtime political reporter who is now an analyst in North Palm Beach. "He can still win here, but he needs to focus on the economy and spend a lot time campaigning in Florida, especially among swing voters along the I-4 corridor."

The scope of the Obama investment in Florida to date makes it less likely the campaign will scale back anytime soon, said Karl Koch of Tampa, who helped run the Florida campaigns for Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

"They've invested very heavily in this state, and it's clear to me that investment will pay off on election day,'' said Koch. "To make a decision that denies you the opportunity to put that operation in place I think would be misplaced."

Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

Florida may be falling from Obama's grasp 09/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 19, 2008 10:04pm]

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