TAMPA — If you wonder why John McCain may be in trouble in Florida, take a look in our back yard.
The state's most critical battleground is the Tampa Bay area, a swing-voter mecca where Barack Obama has relentlessly focused attention and where recent polls consistently show McCain lagging. The Democratic nominee is expected to return to Tampa for a campaign event Monday, less than two weeks after running mate Joe Biden held a rally at the University of South Florida.
"Sure, I'm concerned,'' said Al Austin, a top Republican fundraiser in Tampa, who said he has been urging the McCain campaign to send McCain or Sarah Palin back to the area. "The Tampa Bay area is the anchor of the I-4 corridor, and you don't win Florida unless you win Tampa Bay."
Local Republicans are confident about their grass roots campaign in this region, home to a quarter of the Florida electorate, but warning signs abound:
• Obama is drowning out McCain on local airwaves. According to the latest analysis by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, Obama aired 1,069 TV ads in the bay area from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, while McCain aired just 369. Tampa Bay ranked as Obama's second-busiest TV market nationally, behind Las Vegas, while it didn't crack the top 10 markets for McCain.
• In Hillsborough County, which President Bush carried by 5 percentage points in 2004, Obama is leading by six points in a Politico/InsiderAdvantage poll released this week.
• In Sarasota County, the longtime GOP stronghold that Bush won by 13 points four years ago, at least three recent Republican polls showed McCain tied or slightly behind Obama.
The economic meltdown has been a major factor in Obama's gain in Florida and elsewhere. But Steve Schale, state director for the Tampa-based Obama campaign, said subtle demographic changes also are helping nudge Tampa Bay toward the Democrats. He noted that in 2006 Democrats picked up county commission seats in Hernando and Pasco counties, as well as two state House seats in Pinellas County and a Hillsborough-Pinellas state Senate seat.
"What's happened down ballot may be a canary in a coal mine,'' Schale said. "I don't think they add up to a major, major shift in voter performance, but it might signal a three- or four-point shift in the overall attitude of the area."
John Kerry won just 46 percent of the vote in the Tampa Bay region in 2004, but several recent polls have shown Obama narrowly leading in the region. Eighteen days is a long time in a campaign, however, and Obama's roughly 5-point lead in Florida is surmountable.
To win Florida, said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, McCain should return to the Tampa Bay area two or three times before the election.
"Sure I'm concerned," Bilirakis said. "I'd like to see him in Florida, in the Tampa Bay area, because I think people need to meet him personally. … He's a warm individual, soft-spoken, and he truly is genuine, and he's more qualified than anyone at this point to be president of the United States."
McCain is hardly ignoring the state. Today he is scheduled to campaign in Miami and Melbourne, while Palin held a rally in Clearwater 11 days ago. Since May, Obama and Biden have held 21 campaign events in Florida, including seven in the Tampa Bay region. McCain and Palin have held 20 events in Florida, including four in the Tampa Bay area.
"Tampa Bay is going to be extremely important in this election, and we are obviously paying a lot of attention to it,'' said Buzz Jacobs, McCain's campaign manager for the Southeast. "There is no doubt you will see Sen. McCain or Gov. Palin or both in Tampa Bay in the closing weeks."
Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.