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Political activists blanket Florida

Forget Disney World and palm-lined beaches. The attraction drawing hordes of Florida visitors these days is the presidential contest.

Passionate partisans in politically irrelevant states from Alabama to California are starting to pour into America's biggest political battleground. They're coming to knock on doors, man phone banks and take on whatever grunt work the campaigns want to give them.

"This is the most important election in my lifetime, and I couldn't just sit here in California. I wanted to do something that I felt was concrete and directed," said Jeanna Steele, who recently graduated from law school in San Francisco and is headed to Tampa Bay to help mobilize anti-Bush voters for Planned Parenthood.

It's a familiar refrain for political activists from "safe states" that are clearly going for John Kerry or George Bush.

They say every vote counts, but in the electoral college system some votes count more than others. Which is why Bush and Kerry spend day after day in swing states like Florida or Pennsylvania while virtually ignoring overwhelmingly Democratic California or overwhelmingly Republican Mississippi.

Energized partisans from the majority of states effectively sidelined this election are descending on Florida to start chasing votes where it may matter most.

Chris Brown, executive director of the Alabama Republican Party, expects 300 to 400 Republican volunteers will fan across Florida over the last two weeks of October.

"They want to be sure George Bush is re-elected, and they want to go wherever they can help the most," Brown said.

Illinois is considered a solidly "blue" Democratic state. "Illinois is in pretty good shape, and we just figured that whoever wins I want to make sure that person wins fairly," said Chicago Democrat Diana Lauber, who is heading to South Florida with her sister next month to work with the Democratic group America Coming Together. "Because of what happened in 2000, I figured if I had one week of vacation to give, where's the most optimal place to spend my time."

By the final weekend of the campaign, both sides expect thousands of out of state volunteers to be in Florida. That's on top of the more than 70,000 in-state volunteers claimed by Bush-Cheney and more than 40,000 by Kerry-Edwards.

In New York, a group called "Operation Bubbe" plans to deploy 100 people into southeast Florida to turn out Jewish retirees for Kerry.

Operation Bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) is made up of Jewish Democrats eager to help Kerry. They also have a little something to prove.

"A lot of people remember in 2000 (Jewish voters in South Florida) were made fun of and treated as if they were stupid for screwing up their ballots," said Bubbe organizer Mick Moore. "So Florida had particular appeal to us."

The political tourists are hitting all parts of Florida and come from both sides of the aisle.

"I have no doubt there will be a minimum 500 to 1,000 and that literally could be just out of Georgia alone," said Bush-Cheney southeast chairman Ralph Reed.

The Republicans are going wherever the Bush-Cheney campaign directs them. The Democrats have a host of options, including the Kerry campaign, state and local parties and assorted independent groups.

"I have about 50 women in Connecticut who want John Kerry to get elected, and they know their vote is not as powerful as a vote in Florida," said Stephanie Grutman, who heads a political arm of Planned Parenthood in Florida.

She expects hundreds of out-of-state volunteers to help locals lock in at least 50,000 absentee and early votes before election day.

Democrats being Democrats, they don't always have the most organized plans. Matt Miller, spokesman for the Kerry campaign in Florida, has had veteran communications staffers declare they're ready to start donating their services in Florida even when he's handling such duties fine, thank you very much.

A grass roots Democratic organization, Driving Votes, is working to harness the energy in non-battleground states. Its Web site helps people hook up for deployments into more contested states.

"Fiercer than any hurricane, we plan to get out the Serious Vote around Miami. We will be flying out there and anyone who wants to come with and share hotel space is more than welcome to join," reads one Driving Votes posting from a California contingent.

By November, the group expects to have conducted more than 50 road trips into Florida by more than 250 volunteers.

Many safe staters are heading to nearby battlegrounds: Illinois residents to Wisconsin, for instance, and Californians to Nevada. But after the 2000 election, Florida retains a special status.

For all the Flori-duh jokes, there's more than a hint of battleground envy among the brigades of safe staters heading to the Sunshine state.

"You guys in Florida are used to people paying attention to you every four years. In New York it's just the opposite," sighed Mick Moore of Operation Bubbe.

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

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