Republicans are increasingly worried about John McCain's prospects in must-win Florida.
The McCain campaign spent most of the summer watching Obama build a massive voter mobilization operation and flood Florida's TV airwaves with ads. For months, they scoffed at how little it did to boost Obama, but now the Democrat has opened up a steady lead in Florida polls and top Republicans are sounding uncharacteristically anxious that the campaign and state party are doing too little, too late.
"Obama obviously has spent a ton of dough, and the fact that we haven't spent a fraction of that has got people concerned. They see all these ads and very little response,'' said former Republican National Committee finance chairman Al Hoffman, a top McCain fundraiser in Florida. "We're three weeks away and have a lot of work to do. We can play Monday morning quarterback after the election."
Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist is fending off suggestions that he's distancing himself from the McCain-Palin ticket, while state GOP chairman Jim Greer made the unusual announcement Tuesday that he would be traveling the state to "assess campaign operations"
"With the short time left until Election Day, as chairman I must do all I can to ensure that the state party is providing the McCain-Palin campaign with all available resources and assistance needed," said Greer, who until recently was suggesting that Obama's big Florida campaign operation was fiction.
Crist has lowered his profile campaign profile considerably since McCain picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Crist is expected to campaign with McCain in Miami and Melbourne on Friday, and on Tuesday brushed off the notion that he was backing away in any way.
"My first and foremost responsibility is to the people of Florida, and I understand that very, very well. When I have time to help out my friend, I'm eager and anxious to do so,'' said Crist, promising to do "everything I can" to help McCain win Florida's 27 electoral votes. "He's a strong closer. … Twenty-one days is a lot of time."
While McCain was leading Obama in Florida polls as recently as late September, the global economic crisis has taken a toll. The average of recent Florida polls now shows Obama with a five-point lead. Even a far superior Republican get-out-the-vote effort would be unable to close that gap if it holds.
A Politico/InsiderAdvantage poll of 638 likely voters in Hillsborough County (margin of error plus or minus 3.8 percent) released Tuesday showed Obama leading McCain 47 percent to 41 percent. If accurate, that would spell real trouble for McCain, as Hillsborough consistently goes Republican in presidential elections.
"I think McCain's probably down five points in Florida. He needs to make up at least half of that between now and Election Day if he's going to have a chance to prevail," said former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, noting that Florida tends to mirror national polls and that get-out-the-vote efforts may have less significance this year.
While Republican leaders in Tampa Bay say they see a strong grass-roots operation with plenty of enthusiastic volunteers, many Republicans are skeptical. Veterans of past Republicans campaigns say they see little outreach by volunteers and note that Crist never focused on grass roots mobilization as aggressively as Jeb Bush.
Bush-Cheney officials used to scoff at Democrats' reliance on paid canvassers and phone callers. This year the McCain-Palin campaign is offering to pay people $12 an hour to knock on doors, and the state GOP is offering $50 and $100 gas cards to people who make enough calls or knock on enough doors.
"We're implementing our strategy, and we feel very confident that this tested approach being run by experienced people will ultimately be successful,'' said Buzz Jacobs, McCain's southeastern campaign manager. "We are hitting our goals, and we're on par to do better in terms of voter contacts than Bush-Cheney did in 2004."
Democrats have won Florida only twice in the past 10 elections, and almost no one is writing off McCain. The Florida GOP has long had a superior voter mobilization effort, and that McCain is even close to Obama after being outspent dramatically on field staffers and 3-1 on TV is testament to Florida's competitiveness.
Obama has more than 400 paid staffers organizing in Florida — about four times what McCain has — but as of Tuesday, Republicans had requested about 793,000 absentee ballots and Democrats about 573,000. Despite the Republican edge, Democrats called that good news, noting that at this point in 2006 Republicans had a 28 percent advantage on absentee ballots and this year that has been cut in half.
Part of the challenge for McCain in Florida is the overall electoral map. He is having to spend time and money fending off Obama in traditionally solid Republican states like Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, along with Florida. By contrast, Obama has far more plausible paths to winning 270 electoral votes, with or without Florida.
"I think he's going to pull it off in the end, I really do,'' said U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, who faces his own tough re-election challenge. "I think he's going to win Florida and Ohio. The question is, is that enough?"
Obama spokeswoman Adrianne Marsh said the McCain campaign understands it can't lose Florida and predicted the race would be close till the end.
"We have every reason to believe that they are going to put adequate resources down in Florida,'' said Marsh. "But we are in a good position to win and we are going to give them a run for their money."
Times staff writers Wes Allison, Steve Bousquet, and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Adam Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.