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Tight race in Florida heads to the finish line

The frenzied, final push to turn out Florida's voters had stars — political and otherwise — blitzing the state Saturday.

"Get everybody in your family, anybody that can vote," comedian Chris Rock exhorted more than 1,000 people at a pro-Barack Obama rally in the College Park area of Tampa. "Get your retarded uncle. Get him to vote. Anybody you know with an arm, bring him down."

Forty miles north in New Port Richey, at least 5,500 people turned out to see Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin kick off a three-stop tour of Central Florida. And in Miami and Winter Park, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stumped for Obama.

"Remember, Florida, we're a nation at war. We need somebody who talks about wars that America is fighting, and isn't afraid to use the word victory. We need John McCain," Palin told the enthusiastic crowd at Sims Park.

Early voting ended Saturday in many Florida counties (except Pinellas, where voting continues today from noon to 4 p.m.), so the campaigns are shifting their emphasis to get every possible vote Tuesday. Polls show a tight race for Florida's 27 electoral votes, and both sides are slicing and dicing the electorate to mobilize their supporters.

That's why Palin was in Pasco, Polk City and Ocala on Saturday. Stressing familiar Republican themes of limited government, national defense and, especially, taxes, she was working to help win these Republican-leaning areas with similarly big margins as President Bush did in 2004.

It's why Rock appeared in a heavily African-American neighborhood at a Little League field a couple of blocks from an early voting site. And it's why Clinton, particularly popular with Hispanics, was in Miami and Central Florida.

"It's like we've been in a long, long race and we can see the finish line," she told a fired-up crowd outside Old San Juan Restaurant in Little Havana. "We can't let anybody stop us or trip us up or divert or distract us. We have to get across that finish line. Everything is at stake that we care about."

Volunteers handed out stickers that read "Hispanics for Change" and arranged for buses to take people to early voting sites and to canvass neighborhoods.

"How many of you have already voted?" Clinton said. A sea of hands shot up amid a roaring cheer. "Well, here's what I want you to do: I want you to make the case for Sen. Obama, and it's not hard to make. …

"It took a Democratic president to clean up after the first President Bush. It's going to take a Democratic president to clean up after this President Bush."

The flood of activity continues today as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani campaigns for McCain at 9:30 a.m. at Square One Burgers in South Tampa; Joe and Jill Biden hit Tallahassee, Gainesville and Daytona Beach; and Obama supporter Jimmy Buffett holds a free get-out-the-vote concert at the Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa at 3 p.m.

McCain, fresh off a Saturday Night Live appearance, is scheduled to hold a rally in Miami after midnight tonight, and then hold a rally outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa later Monday morning. Obama will campaign in Jacksonville on Monday.

Dave Rodgers, 58, a Republican from Holiday at Palin's rally, discounted the polls showing McCain behind Obama. He said the undecided voters will go for McCain because of questions over the economy and national security, and McCain's experience. Those factors played into his decision to back McCain after the third debate, even though he had planned to sit out the election.

"Remember back to the 2004 election, we were behind, too," Rodgers said.

A Mason-Dixon poll released Saturday shows a neck-and-neck race in Florida with Obama leading McCain, 49 percent to 47 percent and 5 percent undecided. That means Florida could come down to whichever side has the stronger voter turnout effort.

"I'm very, very worried. I have never seen people so much as now," said Laura Vianello, 59, a Republican activist who was waving signs for McCain outside the Cuban restaurant Versailles on Saturday. "Obama is much more organized, and I hate to say that because I'm a Republican."

Many voters who turned out to see Chris Rock sported "Obama is my president" T-shirts, and many of them said they already had voted. Rock joked during his seven-minute routine about the numerous houses owned by the McCains and said the Republican nominee can't relate to their lives and struggles. "When you go to somebody for help, you want somebody who can relate to what you have to say. Like if I have problems (picking up women), I wouldn't call Brad Pitt because he wouldn't know what I was talking about," Rock quipped.

He is hardly the only celebrity working to turn out votes in Florida. Comedian George Lopez will be campaigning for Obama in Miami and Tampa on Monday, and the McCain campaign on Saturday released a new TV ad featuring Jeb Bush.

"The people of Florida face an important choice," the former governor says. "Do we elect a president who'll raise your taxes, or fight for working families? A president who'll spread your income, or let you keep what's yours?

Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith reported from Tampa, David DeCamp from New Port Richey and Alex Leary from Miami. Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.

Tight race in Florida heads to the finish line 11/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 1:50pm]
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