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Obama's team had foresight to deliver Florida

Now that Barack Obama is president-elect and Florida is blue on the electoral map, it's easy to forget how things started.

Here in Clinton country, it was crazy for prominent Florida Democrats to embrace Obama's candidacy. And for an underdog campaign fixated on Iowa and other early primary states, Florida was a distant outpost and an afterthought.

So in the year before the Illinois senator looked like a serious threat to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Florida Obama campaign was a seat-of-the-pants operation led by a handful of true believers winging it on their own.

"It was bizarre. It wasn't like it was a few people for two months, it was a few people for basically a year and three months,'' said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, who took heat from constituents baffled at why he was not backing Clinton. "There were so few of us for so long, that we all became best friends."

Obama attracted loads of passionate grass roots support, notably the volunteers of the Tampa-based "O-Train." But ask many Democrats long involved in the campaign about the most important Florida players and five names make everybody's list: • Kirk Wagar, a passionate and foul-mouthed 39-year-old lawyer with keen political instincts, was a top John Kerry fundraiser in 2004. Backing Obama, he wound up competing against some of Florida's most legendary and experienced fundraisers helping Clinton and others. He housed the lone Obama staffer in his Miami office early on and for months served as a de facto communications director with a fondness for bludgeoning Florida reporters over stories he disapproved of. • Frank Sanchez, 49, a Tampa business consultant and former Clinton administration appointee, agonized over whether to stay with Clinton out of loyalty or follow his heart. Sanchez, whose graceful demeanor belies a wicked sense of humor, was the chairman of Obama's National Hispanic Leadership Council and is now in Washington working on the Obama transition team. He is seen as a likely contender for a spot in the administration, perhaps as an envoy to Latin America. • Allan Katz, a North Florida power broker, former insurance regulator and lobbyist who has long kept Bobby Kennedy's flame burning inside him. As a member of the Democratic National Committee's rules committee, Katz, 61, often butted heads with state party leaders. He ultimately outmaneuvered the Clinton campaign's legendary Harold Ickes in divvying up disputed delegates from Florida and Michigan, states that had violated the sanctioned primary schedule. There's buzz about him becoming vice chairman of the DNC. • Wexler, the 47-year-old congressman from Boca Raton who represents a district with a big Jewish population, had been one of President Bill Clinton's most vocal defenders during impeachment. A buddy of Gov. Charlie Crist and the earliest major political supporter of Obama in Florida, Wexler today may be the most influential member of Florida's delegation.

• Teddy Johnston, a 29-year-old Hoosier and professors' kid who speaks four languages and has two master's degrees, quit law school to become Obama's Florida finance director. As the only paid Obama campaign staffer in the state for more than a year, he essentially served as fundraiser, political director and everything in between.

"Early on, we kind of all operated on the assumption we needed to be prepared if there was going to be a Florida primary,'' said Sanchez. "We'd have these weekly calls, and you could feel the intensity and urgency from Kirk that this is something bigger than all of us, and we've got to make it happen."

Mostly these calls were about fundraising strategy. But out of a desire to ensure Florida ultimately became a battleground, the top fundraisers here did double and triple duty, courting key political supporters and nurturing the grass roots efforts that had sprung up.

"We really bonded with each other along the way because everyone else out there was telling us this just isn't going to work,'' said Katz, a Tallahassee city commissioner. "Unlike so many political campaigns, people were not playing like I'm worried about someone else getting credit. There was a remarkably small amount of the pettiness that usually goes around.''

Their mission was especially awkward because of Florida's bizarre Democratic primary, where no delegates were at stake. State Democratic leaders and Clinton's top Florida supporters stressed the importance of that Jan. 29 election, while the Obama campaign insisted millions of Democratic votes in Florida were irrelevant.

"Five days before the primary I called Chicago begging for talking points, because I was getting the (heck) kicked out of me by people like Bill Nelson and Kendrick Meek,'' Wagar recounted, referring to the U.S. senator and the Miami congressman backing Clinton. "They said, 'You know that we can't get involved.' "

Each of these men was convinced all along that Obama could win Florida, but that was not necessarily so clear at the national headquarters in Chicago.

"I sent a profanity-laced e-mail to (national campaign manager David) Plouffe in March of '07 and basically said, 'We can win Florida and here's how, we need to have more attention to it, blah, blah, blah,' '' recalled Wagar, who points to March 4 of this year as among the most critical days for the Florida campaign.

That's when supporters organized more than 200 house parties across the state with a goal of raising $1,000 at each. Those parties, featuring a phone call from Sen. Edward Kennedy, wound up raising more than $300,000.

It was Obama's three-day swing through Florida in May that convinced the campaign to go all in.

"Just before that trip, my position with the campaign was, 'Give us one solid trip to Florida. Do the I-4 corridor, do South Florida.' I insisted we go to a synagogue,'' said Wexler, who by then had been joined by Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor as co-chairs of the Florida campaign. " 'If you do that,' I said, 'I am confident we can ascertain whether we can realistically compete.' ''

Obama drew huge crowds in Tampa and Broward County and was enthusiastically received at a conservative synagogue and by a prominent Cuban-American group in Miami. Florida no longer looked quite so red.

"When they came down here, they realized we had more of a volunteer organization and an energy level than they realized,'' said Wagar. "It had grown up, some organically and some through the low-dollar finance events we put together.''

Soon after, the Obama campaign tapped Democratic strategist Steve Schale to lead the Florida campaign and began building the largest presidential campaign the state has ever seen. That early, core group of Obama advocates quickly turned over their quixotic campaign to the pros.

"I firmly believe our ability to succeed was directly due to the work done by those folks who never stopped organizing on Florida, even when there was no campaign,'' Schale said.

Now, these earliest Obama backers are preparing for an inauguration, each of them inextricably bonded after a Florida battle nobody had expected them to win at the start.

"In every campaign there's a camaraderie," said Wagar. "But this was that times a thousand because we were doing it ourselves and because everybody said for so long we were nuts. I would take a bullet for every one of those guys."

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

Obama's team had foresight to deliver Florida 11/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 3:48pm]
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