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Chillier political climate for this Obama visit to Florida

President Obama greets supporters Monday after speaking at a Democratic fundraiser at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.

Associated Press

President Obama greets supporters Monday after speaking at a Democratic fundraiser at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel.

Last time President Barack Obama visited America's biggest battleground state, our unemployment rate was nearly two points lower and his approval rating in Florida nearly 20 points higher.

It was February, and he was in Fort Myers touting the $787 billion stimulus package.

Today as he visits a new solar energy plant southeast of Tampa, the political climate is a lot chillier.

Unemployment has risen, anxious seniors have spent months fretting about the health care debate and independent voters have increasingly soured on the president.

It could all add up to problems for Democrats in the midterm elections.

"I always worry during the off-year elections. Turnout will be half what it was in the presidential," said Democratic consultant Jim Kitchens of Maitland, noting that Republicans tend to have a significant turnout advantage in nonpresidential years. "I also think you've got the Republican base fired up against the administration. . . . Any Democrat in a congressional district where there's a Republican opponent I think is in danger, even a no-name Republican."

With almost every statewide office open in 2010, many Democrats say they are in the strongest position they've been in in modern history. The state party is better organized than it has been in decades, Obama's political machine already has a dozen staffers organizing throughout Florida, and the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Alex Sink, is significantly outraising the leading Republican, Bill McCollum.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to worry. In 2010 Democrats won't have George W. Bush to blame for problems facing the country. Many observers doubt infrequent or first-time voters will turn out in droves in an off-year election, as they did when Obama turned Florida blue for the first time since 1996. What's more, the party controlling the White House historically faces midterm electoral losses, at least in the U.S. House.

Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., said voters are getting concerned about the size and reach of the federal government.

"It's starting to resonate," he said. Obama is "going to have a Florida that still wants change but they're going to be a lot more skeptical."

Republicans seek to stir those doubts with a new Spanish-language radio ad in Miami, where Obama was Monday night for a Democratic fundraiser.

"Will you really cut funding for Medicare to pay for it? How can that be good? That's really going to hurt our seniors," a narrator says.

Health care has been one of Obama's biggest challenges and with Florida's large elderly population the political risk is particularly acute. Obama typically fares worse in polls among seniors, a reliable voter base.

The radio ad, which runs through Wednesday, also tries to cast Obama as ineffective on the economy. At 11 percent, Florida has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

The national average is 9.8 percent. And while the country as a whole saw personal income rise 0.2 percent in the second quarter, it fell by the same amount in Florida, the fourth consecutive quarterly drop.

Democrats said in a statement released by the national committee that the ad was full of "misleading arguments, debunked claims and outright lies" and cited Gov. Charlie Crist's embrace of the stimulus package earlier this year. Democrats also said health care reform means a "stronger, better Medicare."

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said that while voters are focused on jobs and the economy, Democratic leaders in Washington have been largely preoccupied with health care reform, a less immediate concern for most people.

"As a Republican strategist, it is confounding to me that the Democratic bucket list does not match up with the American public or the Florida public. Voters have been consistent throughout all of 2009 — it's jobs, jobs, jobs,'' Conway said.

Kitchens said he conducted a statewide poll recently that found more than one third of Florida voters were "very" concerned about experiencing a financial crisis in the next year and nearly one third were "somewhat concerned."

"For the Democrats to feel okay, we've got to see the unemployment numbers come down," Kitchens said.

David Winston, a Republican pollster, said it's no certainty that Republicans can effectively capitalize on the difficult political climate facing Democrats in Florida and across the country.

"The challenge for Republicans is to not just simply be negative about what the Democrats are doing — that 'party of no' (criticism) is starting to stick — and to present alternatives so there's a choice in the election,'' Winston said.

Gubernatorial candidate Sink has kept some distance from Obama, repeatedly declining to take a position on a public option as part of the health care reform debate, for instance.

She greeted him Monday in Miami. But she will not join the president at the Florida Power & Light solar plant in Arcadia today because of a Cabinet meeting, and she skipped Obama's visit to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. Her campaign cited a scheduling conflict, though nothing was listed on her official calendar.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Obama down the road today

President Barack Obama will travel to Arcadia just before noon today to tour Florida Power & Light's new solar energy plant and to promote $3.4 billion in stimulus funding for "smart grid" technology. Arcadia is about 90 miles southeast of Tampa.

Chillier political climate for this Obama visit to Florida 10/26/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 1:21am]
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