Obama jumps into Florida with both feet

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Imagine you're Barack Obama, and it's time to face the music in Florida.

You've ignored the Sunshine State for eight months, you've brushed off Hillary Rodham Clinton's cries of "count every Florida vote," and exit polls in state after state suggest you're weak among Hispanics, Jews, and seniors. In America's biggest, oldest, and most diverse swing state, that makes you a strong candidate for mayor of Loserville.

So when you finally get around to asking Floridians for their votes, one might expect you to move in gently, almost gingerly.

Forget it.

Barack Obama opted for the rip-the-bandage-off approach.

The presumed Democratic nominee didn't just bop in and out for a quick I-4 corridor rally; he devoted three days to Florida last week. The candidate who has been pounded for his willingness to engage with America's enemies didn't just sip cafe Cubano in Little Havana; he spoke to the fervently anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation.

Depicted as anti-Israel in countless anonymous e-mails ricocheting about America, he could have just pressed the flesh in one of many Jewish Democratic strongholds in South Florida; instead he held a town hall meeting at a conservative temple in Boca Raton.

"Let's be honest, part of what raises concerns is you've got a black guy named Barack Obama. So people say he's got a Muslim-sounding name, and people don't know what's going on," he told a silver-haired voter who suggested he would win more Florida votes if he went by Barry, instead of Barack.

"Judge me by what I say and what I've done," Obama urged. "Don't judge me because I've got a funny name. Don't judge me because I'm African-American and people are concerned about memories of the past."

Conventional wisdom says Republican-leaning Florida will be a tough state for Obama, tougher still because he took so long to reach out to Floridians. Republicans think he's vulnerable on foreign policy and are working to cast him as dangerously misguided when it comes to dealing with America's enemies.

"Floridians see through the smooth rhetoric, and still strongly object to Obama's plan to unconditionally sit down with the Castros and Ahmadinejads,'' said Jeff Sadosky, campaign spokesman for Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee. "One trip to Florida, or a thousand, regardless, weak and naive judgment on foreign policy issues doesn't fly."

Obama's three days in Florida, though, left little doubt that he's aiming to fight hard for Florida's 27 electoral votes or that he's a potentially tough rival for McCain. Obama drew the kind of big, enthusiastic crowds that typically require ground organizations he has yet to put in place.

His campaign hoped the trip would jolt his poll numbers in Florida, but even before the week's political reverberations could be measured, a Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Obama close to catching McCain, 45 percent to 41 percent. The survey of 1,419 Florida voters on May 13-20 had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

"He barely even had a volunteer structure in place here, and the fact that he could pull this trip off so well speaks to his popularity and potential here,'' said Broward County Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh. "He's showing Florida some love now, and Florida's showing it back."

For a campaign that's supposed to be about transcending the traditional political approach of slicing and dicing the electorate into ideological and demographic subsets, Obama did precisely that in Florida.

Swing voters? Check them off with a big rally in Tampa. Non-Cuban Hispanics? Check them off with a town hall meeting of mostly Puerto Ricans in Kissimmee. Jews? That temple in Boca. South Florida liberals? A Broward County rally Friday night as big as any the region has ever seen.

And even Republican-leaning Cuban voters.

"After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions,'' he told the Cuban American National Foundation on Friday. "There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing. But only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people."

Upbeat and eager to look past the primary and to the general election, Obama approached his potential vulnerabilities head on.

Come November, he said, Florida's primary mess, along with the doubts some have about his appeal among key demographic groups, will be drowned out by the issues on people's minds.

"People are trying to figure out how do I get health care that's affordable, how do I send my kid to college, how do I deal with high gas prices, how do we bring a resolution to this war in Iraq so we're not spending $10-billion a month there," Obama told the St. Petersburg Times.

"By the fall, that is what's going to be on voters' minds — who can deliver the changes in Washington that will make their lives better. Whether they're Jewish voters, Hispanic voters, older voters, we're going to be in a strong position to do that," he said.

Obama is such a sensation on the stump it can be disconcerting. In Tampa, he politely told people to go ahead and have a seat, and the St. Pete Times Forum erupted in roars befitting a profound rallying cry.

His rally in Broward drew a thunderous crowd of about 16,000, the biggest that local politicos could recall. When he switched to a wireless microphone, a deafening cheer spread across the BankAtlantic Center.

But he still remains little-known to many Floridians. (And knows little about Florida: In his Broward speech, he kept referring to the city of Sunrise as Sunshine. "Thank you everybody, it's good to be in Sunshine.") Even many ardent Democrats are skeptical.

"It's hard because a lot of women my age around here are so passionate about Hillary Clinton and they're only thinking about having the first woman president, but that will change as people see him," said 69-year-old Madeleine Siegel at B'Nai Torah temple in Boca Raton. "People are saying Jews should go Republican this year because Obama's not good for Israel. But I'm Jewish, I'm Zionist, but I know it's a bunch of malarkey."

At the temple, Obama skipped his standard stump speech and showed his familiarity with Jewish culture. He spoke of the camp counselor who taught him about Zionism, about Jewish scholars and authors who helped shape his thinking, about the social justice tradition among Jews, and said he had been pained by the divisions he has seen between African-Americans and Jews.

"That sense of a common kinship of a people who have been uprooted, a people who have been on the outside, that strikes me as the very essence of what we should be fighting for," said Obama, drawing cheers.

Just as at the temple, he appeared to be winning over doubters Friday in Miami.

"I must say I was really impressed. I'm a Republican, but he has me really thinking about how to vote," 62-year-old mortgage broker Eloy Cepero said after hearing Obama talk about Latin America policy. "If we just continue the way we have been, the hard line, we may never achieve a free Cuba."

Manuel Gonzalez, a 63-year-old Democrat and art curator, sounded a little guilty as he left Obama's Miami speech.

"I'll never give up on Hillary. I love Hillary and I always will,'' he said. "But I feel like I'm starting a new relationship now with Obama. I just hope it works out."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Obama jumps into Florida with both feet 05/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 5:11pm]

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