TALLAHASSEE — Winning Florida is critical to Sen. John McCain's bid for the presidency, and his campaign announced a team Friday that it said will overpower Sen. Barack Obama's volunteer army.
Including state Republican Party workers, McCain will be assisted by about 30 full-time employees. What's more, 23 offices are being set up across the state, including one already in Tampa, that will serve as nerve centers for phone banks, door-to-door campaigning and other grass roots efforts.
"It's a very strong political machine," said Arlene DiBenigno, director of the Florida campaign. "And it's a machine you can point to. It's there. It's in every county."
Her comments were a not-so-subtle slam at the volunteer effort the Obama campaign says it will unleash on the state. About 400 college students and retirees from all over the United States are being dispatched as part of what they're calling an unprecedented ground game.
GOP chairman Jim Greer dismissed Obama's plan as "a phantom organizational structure." Still, Obama also has about 20 paid organizers in Florida and has been building staff. He is setting up a Florida headquarters in Ybor City.
The McCain staff will be augmented by paid state party "Victory" workers who will help with races up and down the ballot.
Heading that effort will be Jim Rimes, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist who now is a top official with the Republican Party of Florida. Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., will co-chair the leadership team, with scores of other elected officials and party activists serving as vice chairs and steering committee members.
The campaign also boasted Friday that it had chairs in each of the state's 67 counties. Hillsborough will be overseen by Greg Truax, Pinellas by Chet Renfro, Pasco by Bill Bunting and Hernando by Tommy Bronson.
Another familiar bay area face is joining the McCain team: Former WTSP-Ch. 10 anchor Mario Diaz is leaving St. Petersburg's CBS affiliate to take a job as a communication director.
Times staff writers Wes Allison and Eric Deggans contributed to this report.