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Note to Sen. Obama: Wake up and smell the change in Florida

Memo to: Sen. Barack Obama

Re: Blowing off 27 electoral votes

Thanks for coming by next week for a three-day campaign swing, Senator.

There has been lots of chatter about you ceding Florida to Sen. John McCain, given the way you've ignored the state for eight months and dismissed the 1.75-million Democrats who voted in our disputed Democratic primary. We're trying not to take it personally when you keep talking about the old electoral map — i.e., Pennsylvania, Ohio and US! — being so 2000/2004.

But here's something you and your advisers might be missing: Florida is turning bluer by the day.

The trend is easy to miss when you see the popularity of our Republican governor, Charlie Crist. Add John Kerry's five-point loss here in 2004 and Jeb Bush's 2002 landslide re-election despite being the Democratic National Committee's top target, and nobody could blame you for thinking Florida is solidly Republican red.

Take a closer look, though, because the latest voter registration statistics show Florida's political landscape is shifting dramatically:

• In the 37 Florida counties with at least 50,000 voters — more than 90 percent of the electorate — Democrats have gained ground among registered voters in 30, while Republicans lost ground in 26. For the first time in many cycles, voters are registering as Democrats at a faster rate than they are registering as independents.

Republicans are gaining mainly in North Florida counties that have been voting Republican for years anyway, while Democrats are gaining in battleground areas.

• A few weeks ago, Democrats overtook Republicans in voter registration among Hispanics, a crucial voter group that could account for 15 percent of the Florida vote in November. Senator, a Democrat now represents Little Havana in the state House, something nobody would have imagined a few years ago.

• Look at the 22 counties where Al Gore received 45 percent to 55 percent of the vote in 2000. Since that virtually tied election, the Democrats' net registration advantage has grown by more than 100,000.

In a state that decided the 2000 election by 537 votes, you bet it matters that today Democrats have more registered voters in a bellwether like Pinellas County, where Republicans in 2000 had a nearly 28,000-voter advantage. Or that in the mega battleground of Miami-Dade County, Democrats have had a net registration gain of nearly 59,000 since 2000.

• Out of Florida's 120 state House districts, 77 have become more Democratic in registration, which helps explain why nine House seats have shifted from Republican to Democrat since 2006, the best performance Democrats have had in decades. Likewise, Democrats picked off three congressional seats in 2006, and Democrat Alex Sink easily won a hard-fought statewide campaign for chief financial officer.

"What we're seeing is the beginnings of a major sea change,'' said Mark Bubriski, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "When you add up all of the major factors that go into the analysis of an election, everything is going the Democratic Party's way."

Well, maybe not everything. There's that delegate debacle and primary boycott. You've got a lot of work to do introducing yourself in Florida and soothing the simmering resentment among many Democrats who claim they might not vote for you.

The point, though, is that even amid controversy and zero attention by your folks, Democrats are gaining market share in this state.

"This is a unique cycle for Florida. The competitive environment is like nothing we've ever seen, and it's up and down the ballot," Democratic strategist Steve Schale said. "Barack Obama's road map to the presidency ends right here."

Sure, Jim Davis lost the 2006 governor's race by 7 percentage points, but don't read too much into that. The Tampa congressman faced a bruising primary and wound up overwhelmingly outspent by a savvy Republican who sometimes sounded more like a Democrat than Davis did.

Realize, too, that in 2006, Florida was leading the country in job creation. Today we're near the top in foreclosures. We've lost 64,500 jobs in the past year, state Republicans haven't made good on promises to fix our property insurance crisis, and the real estate market is in the tank.

When Crist was campaigning for governor, gas cost about $2.15 a gallon in the Tampa Bay area, Florida's most important battleground. If your motorcade fills up on the way to the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday, you'll find gas around $3.75 per gallon.

"This is a wholly different state two years later than it was in 2006,'' said Karl Koch, a veteran campaign strategist and former Davis adviser.

The bad news, Senator, is that your opponent is McCain. On paper, he's a nearly ideal candidate for Florida: strong among veterans, Hispanics, and potentially among independent and swing voters.

"It is very clear that Republicans will be swimming upstream politically in '08. That being said, John McCain's record of independent work on the big issues that are facing our country and his willingness to work across party lines make him the type of Republican who can transcend the current political environment," said McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky.

The Florida GOP retains a big advantage in the mechanics of winning elections. Crist and his team will leave no stone unturned mobilizing McCain voters.

Yup, you've got a challenge in Florida and ground to make up, Sen. Obama. But don't buy the widespread Beltway view that we're probably out of reach. Democrats haven't been better positioned to pick off Florida since 2000, maybe even since 1976.

Adam C. Smith can be reached

at asmith@sptimes.com

or (727) 893-8241.

>>fast facts

Obama in Tampa

When/where: Wednesday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Doors open at 10:30 a.m. for the noon rally.

Tickets: Free. They are required and are available at barackobama.com. You also will be able to pick up free tickets at locations in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Sarasota and Manatee counties beginning today. Details will be available at fl.barackobama.com/tampa.

Note to Sen. Obama: Wake up and smell the change in Florida 05/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:08pm]

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