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Florida's a tougher sell than four years ago for Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney has an edge

The Colorado shooting cut short President Barack Obama's two-day swing through Florida, but count on him to return repeatedly between now and November. Practically every week, Floridians receive visits from the president, the vice president, the first lady or some other top surrogate for the administration.

There's good reason for it.

"When he shows up somewhere, he always leaves more popular than he was before he showed up. It really is the power of incumbency," said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie.

Florida being Florida, the presidential race is neck and neck between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney just more than 100 days from Election Day, with Obama averaging less than half a percentage point lead. Rewind the clock exactly four years, and Obama was tied with John McCain in Florida, too, and he wound up winning by nearly 3 percentage points.

Razor-thin presidential elections are typical in Florida, and there's no reason to think 2012 will be any different, particularly as undecided voters here tend to make up their minds late in the campaign. But the fundamental political headwinds are favoring Romney in America's biggest battleground state.

Recent polls consistently underscore Romney's advantages:

• 54 percent of likely Florida voters believe the country is on the wrong track, and only 35 percent believe Obama's policies have improved the economy, according to a July 9-11 Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.

• A poll this month by the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies found 50 percent of Florida voters said Obama was a failure as president, and only 40 percent said Romney couldn't do a better job improving the economy.

• Recent national Gallup polls have found the president's support among Jewish voters has dropped 10 percent since 2008, and the number of voters younger than 30 — a key group for Obama — who said they definitely will vote at all has dropped 20 percentage points to 58 percent.

• In poll after poll this year, the president's approval rating has remained below 50 percent, ominous for any incumbent.

"An incumbent struggling to stay at 45 percent — after plowing through $20 million in negative advertising, and holding more than 20 campaign events in one state — is in trouble," Republican consultant Brett Doster, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, wrote in a memo welcoming Obama to Florida last week.

Obama, just as he did in 2008, is building the largest campaign organization Florida has ever seen, and his allies say that methodical effort is right on track. Democrats have out-registered Republicans for five straight months.

What's more, Romney's heavily touted business experience has been battered by attacks on his record leading the investment firm Bain Capital, while polls consistently show the president personally popular.

"You have this dynamic where people don't necessarily like some of the things that Obama has done, but when you look at things like who do you trust more, who is better for the middle class, the numbers are clearly on Obama's side," said Beattie, noting the parallels to the 2004 race where much of George W. Bush's record was unpopular, but John Kerry's difficulty connecting with average voters proved fatal.

The bleak employment numbers — Florida's rate remains stalled above the national average at 8.6 percent — may not be as determinative as they once were, Beattie argued. The relatively healthy stock market also drives public perceptions.

"Models of predicting elections are going to shift more toward the stock market than unemployment," he said. "It affects the overall mood if they see people see their retirement funds going up or down."

Demographic trends, especially the fast-growing population of non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida, are shifting the state toward the Democrats over the long term, but today the landscape is vastly tougher for Obama in Florida and much of the country than it was four years ago.

He's no longer the fresh face promising hope and change. He no longer faces a dispirited Republican electorate after eight years of Bush. McCain mounted an anemic grass roots campaign in Florida, but this time Republicans are opening offices across the state. And in the era of super PACs, Obama no longer enjoys a vast financial advantage.

In 2008, Obama outspent McCain nearly 3-to-1 on TV ads. Since May 1, the Obama campaign has spent $17.5 million on TV ads in Florida, compared to just $4.1 million by Romney, according to tracking by National Journal. But add in the spending by assorted super PACs on both sides, and overall spending to help Obama comes to $20.5 million, and $18.6 million on behalf of Romney.

"It's a completely different environment. First of all you're not in a defensive mode, kind of carrying the eight years of George Bush," Republican consultant Rich Heffley of Tallahassee said. "Now it's Obama's economy, Obama's stimulus, and we have the argument for change, which is powerful."

The Obama campaign's aggressive attacks on Romney's business career and his refusal to release more tax returns is an effort to make Romney unpalatable early, just as President Bill Clinton did to Bob Dole in 1996. It's a whole new world since 1996, however.

"There wasn't parity in money, there weren't super PACs, there wasn't the 24-hour news cycle, there weren't a lot of things," Heffley said.

The effectiveness of the Obama campaign — and the flaws of Romney — can't be overestimated, Democratic strategists say. Nor, they acknowledge, is the amount of work it will take to win the Sunshine State again.

"Florida is a swing state by definition, but it's really a swing state that leans red," said Democratic consultant Derek Newton of Miami. "It takes a national dynamic for Florida to go Democratic at the top of the ticket. Looking at Florida's history, a tie usually goes to the Republicans."

Newton said Obama's personal popularity may be his most important asset.

"I don't know that his personable favorability will change much between now and November,'' Newton said. "Romney can certainly improve or stumble more, and I think that's what's going to decide it."

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

Florida's a tougher sell than four years ago for Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney has an edge 07/21/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 23, 2012 3:52pm]
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