Obama campaign blankets Florida

TAMPA — As Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton barnstormed Florida on Monday to remind people that voting is under way and continues for two weeks, it was clear voters are already turning out in record numbers.

"I want everybody after this rally, if you have not already voted, I want you to go vote,'' Obama told at least 7,000 people at a Tampa rally marking the first day of early voting in Florida. "Don't wait until Nov. 4. You don't know what might happen on Nov. 4. Your car might break down. You might have an emergency."

In Pasco County on Monday, some people waited an hour to cast their votes, and by day's end 4,553 had voted, compared with 1,473 on the first day of early voting in 2004. In Hillsborough County, more than 7,600 voted, nearly double the number that turned out on the first day of early voting in 2004.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning called the long lines at voting sites, especially in South Florida, "a healthy sign of democracy,'' while in Pinellas County the decision by Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark to open only three sites appeared to be affecting turnout. Fewer than 2,500 people voted Monday, compared with more than 3,200 in 2004 when Clark opened nine offices.

The heavy turnout caused scattered glitches. In Pasco County, Elections Supervisor Brian Corley said the unexpectedly high number of voters had caused an "overload" on calculating the day's results.

In St. Petersburg, a jammed ballot printer briefly caused a wait of almost 40 minutes. And in South Florida, Rep Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said he was considering filing a lawsuit to get more voting machines. He said some voters there had to wait three hours.

As much as 40 percent of Florida's electorate could vote before Nov. 4, according to estimates.

Locking in votes before Election Day is a top priority for Obama's massive field organization in Florida, which appears significantly behind John McCain's campaign in ballots already cast by mail. At Monday's rally at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, the Obama campaign offered shuttle buses to early voting sites and passed out fliers telling people where they can vote.

The Obama campaign is blanketing the state this week, with events by the Illinois senator, wife Michelle Obama, Sen. Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who plans a rally in Tampa on Wednesday.

"We have waited eight long years for change. You don't have to wait any longer. You can vote today, tomorrow, the next day and begin our march to take our country back," Clinton told an estimated 60,000 people crammed around Amway Arena for a joint rally with Obama in Orlando on Monday night. "Now is the time to close the deal for Barack Obama."

It's almost impossible for McCain to win the White House if he loses Florida, but Obama's lead has been slipping in recent polls. The average shows Obama leading by just two points.

The Democrat is dramatically outspending McCain in organizing efforts and TV ads, but Republicans insist their long-standing advantage on voter mobilization will pay off. As of Monday, the McCain campaign said, roughly 295,000 Republicans had returned absentee ballots, compared with 199,000 from Democrats.

Republicans traditionally outperform Democrats on mail ballots, while Democrats turned out in greater numbers to early voting sites four years ago.

Democrats also have gained dramatically in voter registrations. There are now 657,775 more Democratic voters in Florida than Republicans, while four years ago the Democratic advantage was less than 370,000.

The biggest question is whether the largest campaign organization Florida has ever seen will effectively turn out enough of those new voters.

"We understand the Democrats are going to try to run up the score on early votes. In 2004 certainly Democrats had an advantage during the early vote period, so we anticipate that may happen again,'' senior McCain adviser Mike DuHaime said. "But I feel that our numbers in the absentee ballots, as well as the number of people who are going to turn out and early vote and the number of people that are going to turn out on Election Day, will more than compensate for that."

In Tampa, Obama talked up his plans to cut taxes for people making less than $250,000 and warned that negative attacks against him are likely to continue for the final two weeks.

"It's getting so bad that even Sen. McCain's running mate denounced his tactics last night. As you know, you really have to work hard to violate Gov. Palin's standards on negative campaigning," Obama said. "That's what you do when you are out of ideas, out of touch and running out of time."

Sarah Palin did not denounce any tactics, but when asked about negative robo calls by the McCain campaign, she said she prefers campaigning face to face.

In a battleground state leading the country in foreclosures and job losses, Obama focused on the need to target relief to the middle class.

"We have tried it John McCain's way. We have tried it George Bush's way. It hasn't worked. It's time for something new. It is time to turn the page on eight years of economic policies that put Wall Street before Main Street but ended up hurting both,'' he said.

Staff writers Alex Leary, Cristina Silva, Will Van Sant, David DeCamp, Steve Bousquet, Kim Wilmath and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

>>Fast facts

N.M. governor to rally in Tampa

A big-name Democrat will arrive in Tampa on Wednesday to continue waving the Obama campaign flag. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will be at Salcines Park at 1705 N Howard Ave. for an early-vote rally. The event is from 11:25 a.m. until noon, and is free and open to the public.

>>fast facts

Early voting

For information on early voting, visit your county's supervisor of elections Web site or call the office:

Pinellas: (727) 464-6108; votepinellas.com

Hillsborough: (813) 272-5850; votehillsborough.org

Pasco: 1-800-851-8754; pascovotes.com

Hernando: (352) 754-4125; hernandovotes.com

Voting guide

For the Know Your Candidates guide to races in your area, visit tampabay.com

Obama campaign blankets Florida 10/20/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 10:31pm]

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