John McCain will stump for Mitt Romney today in a part of Florida where Republicans usually don't need much outside help.
McCain will ride a bus across the Panhandle to meet with veterans and activists in Pensacola, Niceville and Panama City.
It's a fitting return for the senator from Arizona, who lost Florida, and the White House, to Barack Obama in 2008.
McCain's visits to Republican voters in Florida, like Vice President Joe Biden's stops last week in the Democratic retirement meccas of Boca Raton and Tamarac, serve as reminders of the fundamentals of presidential campaigning in Florida.
First, fire up your base voters to make sure they vote.
Second, don't let your opponent gain a foothold in your stronghold. That's a lesson McCain himself learned the hard way, in Jacksonville, in 2008.
Obama established a strong presence in Jacksonville's Duval County in 2008. The raw numbers show he lost the county, but by less than 8,000 votes out of more than 400,000 cast, making it a symbolic victory.
The race should never have been that close in the state's most reliably Republican major city.
By effectively mobilizing African-American voters and garnering a slice of the white vote, Obama virtually wiped out the Republicans' advantage in Jacksonville.
Compare that to what happened four years earlier, when Democrat John Kerry lost Duval to Republican George W. Bush by 61,000 votes.
In Florida, Republicans usually run strongest along the top tier of the state and in Southwest Florida, while Democrats rely on Southeast Florida's big three counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
At the center of it all is the I-4 corridor stretching from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach, the swing territory in the biggest swing state. It has become an accepted truth in Florida that whoever wins I-4 wins the state.
Four years ago, that was Obama.
He won just 15 of Florida's 67 counties but picked up Pinellas, Hillsborough, Orange, Osceola and Volusia. (Four years earlier, Kerry lost to Bush in Hillsborough and Osceola, and the two ran neck-and-neck in Pinellas and Orange.)
Pockets of one-party dominance appear elsewhere, such as Alachua, Gadsden and Leon for Democrats and citrus-rich Indian River and Brevard for Republicans.
In 2008, Obama was able to perform a few percentage points better in those Republican counties than Kerry did four years earlier, and bit by bit it added up to a Democratic victory margin of 236,450 votes out of nearly 9 million cast.
If Romney is to win Florida in 2012, he can't let Obama do that again, and he has to roll up overwhelming majorities in the places McCain will be campaigning today: Escambia, Okaloosa and Bay, all solidly Republican with clusters of active and retired military personnel.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected]