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Florida holds the key, again

The cliche about this presidential election is looking truer by the day: It could all come down to Florida.

More precisely, it could come down to Tampa Bay.

A strong Republican convention and a wobbly August for Kerry have shifted the national electoral landscape and elevated Florida's already enormous importance.

Where Sen. John Kerry used to hold a narrow edge over Bush nationally, he now lags the president and faces a shrunken battlefield of competitive states.

Florida is the mother of them all, with one-tenth of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency. With hurricanes virtually freezing politics out of the state for a month, both sides are anxiously awaiting reliable poll results even while predicting another election squeaker.

Only a few weeks ago, the campaigns were fighting among 20 battleground states. Now that list is down to about half that. Kerry is playing defense in several big states Al Gore won in 2000, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Demographic changes have already added seven electoral votes to the states Bush won in 2000. Though the state polls will surely continue shifting, some strategists looking at the current electoral map see Kerry needing to win either Florida (27 electoral votes) or Ohio (20 electoral votes).

Bush won Ohio narrowly four years ago, and many pundits this year maintained that Ohio would prove to be the most crucial contest of the election. But the most recent polls show Bush leading Ohio by as much as 12 points.

"If the polls continue showing us winning Missouri and Kerry slipping in Ohio and Wisconsin, Florida will be the end all, be all," said Republican consultant Geoff Becker.

Which means, Tampa Bay residents, that we're once again again the center of the political universe.

"If you win Tampa (Bay), you win Florida," said veteran Democratic pollster David Beattie.

At least one in four Florida voters live in the bay area. And the bay area is where pollsters find nearly 70 percent of the "persuadable" voters in the swing voter swath known as the I-4 corridor. Some people are even more specific about Florida's political heart.

"Whoever wins Pinellas County will win Florida," said Karl Koch, who worked as a top Florida strategist for Gore in 2000 and is now chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa.

That's because of the shifting politics of the Tampa Bay area. Some Democrats in Hillsborough County deny it, but the county is becoming reliably Republican in statewide races. It may be close, but the fact is that suburban growth has helped Republicans overcome the overwhelming Democratic advantage in the city of Tampa and emerge as the consistent favorite for close statewide races.

Not so Pinellas, which Gore won by four percentage points in 2000 and which Gov. Jeb Bush carried by 12 points in 2002. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll in late August showed Bush with a double-digit lead in Hillsborough and in a dead heat with Kerry in Pinellas.

Another proven bellwether county is Pasco, which Gore won by less than 1,000 votes. Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning is so consistently prompt in posting election returns online that veteran campaign workers have grown accustomed to eyeing Pasco's early results to see where Florida's heading.

"I would say Pinellas, Pasco and Orange counties are going to be your quickie looks at where you're going," said Becker.

The Orlando area is a major battleground, but the growing number of non-Cuban Hispanic voters there are tilting it Democratic. Recent voter registration trends in Orange should also give Republicans some heartburn: an additional 3,137 Republicans since January, compared to 14,263 more Democrats and 12,777 independent voters.

Like the rest the hurricane-battered state, Tampa Bay residents received little attention from the presidential campaigns over the last month. For better or worse, that's about to change in a big way.

"Compared to 2000, we're doing five times as much," Peggy O'Shea said last week in a Largo office, as Bush-Cheney volunteers passed out campaign signs and called voters to urge them to mail in their absentee ballots. "We're looking to not just eke it out in Pinellas County, but have a definitive win."

Barely 3 miles away, a steady stream of Kerry-Edwards campaign volunteers filtered in and out of a nondescript industrial park.

"This year is the first time I've ever actively campaigned," said St. Petersburg meeting planner Kathie Spitzer. "This is so important I will do everything in my power to make sure Bush is out."

In the eye of the political storm brewing in Florida, both sides will need all the motivation they can muster.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or