CLEARWATER — He gushed about the Tampa Bay weather, waxed poetic about Guinness beer and deftly avoided an argument over whether the Rays are superior to his beloved White Sox.
But Barack Obama didn't kick off a three-day visit to Pinellas County Tuesday for idle chit chat. It had more to do with the TV cameras capturing his surprise Tuesday afternoon visit to O'Keefe's Tavern in Clearwater before he disappeared behind the gates of the Belleview Biltmore Resort to prepare for Friday's critical presidential debate.
The Tampa Bay area is the biggest regional battleground in the war for Florida's 27 electoral votes, and Obama's visit to Pinellas underscores the state's importance to him. His Tampa-based campaign already has more than 400 paid staffers and 50 offices across Florida, and this week he can focus on the debate in seclusion while easily popping out to generate local excitement and publicity.
Asked why he chose the Tampa Bay area as the location for his predebate work, Obama said: "Look at the weather, man. It's great.''
Today, Obama will head 5 miles north to hold a midday rally at Knology Park in Dunedin — a rare presidential campaign visit for North Pinellas.
Obama's unexpected stop at O'Keefe's on S Fort Harrison Avenue on Tuesday, for example, left the lunch crowd bemused and startled by the sudden crush of Secret Service agents and travelling journalists. Obama made his way to every diner in the restaurant and left with a cheeseburger with mustard to go.
"He is so personable,'' retiree Doris St. Pierre of Pasco County said after chatting with the candidate. She didn't tell him she already had voted by absentee ballot for John McCain.
Nurse Cassandra Hogan, 55, had just finished her shift at Morton Plant Hospital when she noticed the commotion at O'Keefe's and dropped in. The Obama fan was awed to be in the presence of her candidate.
"Never in a million years did I ever expect I would see this man," she said. "This is like a history lesson right here. Anything is possible. Anything is possible. Wow."
An NBC poll by Mason Dixon released Tuesday showed Florida a dead heat with 47 percent support for Obama and 45 percent for McCain, and it found Obama leading in the Tampa Bay area.
Last week, a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll also found a two-point race, but with McCain at 47 and Obama at 45.
The Tampa Bay area is a magnet for campaigning presidential contenders, but nominees rarely visit North Pinellas County. That's especially true for Dunedin. Vinnie Luisi, executive director of the Dunedin Historical Museum, said not since Alf Landon in 1936 had a presidential nominee stopped in town.
Dunedin City Commission member Deborah Kynes, a Democrat, said that since the news of Obama's visit became public, City Hall had been inundated with calls from residents wanting to get in to the rally, and from entrepreneurs wondering if they could make a buck on the event by parking cars.
"It's been pandemonium down at City Hall," Kynes said. "There's a big buzz going. People are really excited to hear him."
It's unclear why Obama chose the Belleview Biltimore to hole up, but it's conveniently located in an area Obama had not yet visited. The historic hotel built by rail magnate Henry Plant offers privacy, facilities to handle a news conference and an amphitheater that could serve as a practice debate hall. It also happens to have a presidential suite.
Tuesday wasn't all play. Obama held a brief news conference at the Belleview to outline the four elements he'll need to see in order to support the proposed $700-billion rescue package for Wall Street: Taxpayers must be reimbursed when the economy recovers; no golden parachutes for Wall Street executives; creation of a bipartisan board for oversight and accountability; and regular homeowners struggling with their mortgages also must receive some help.
"It is wholly unreasonable to expect that American taxpayers would or should hand this administration or any administration a $700-billion blank check with absolutely no oversight or conditions," said Obama.
Staff writer Eileen Schulte and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.