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SUPPORTERS READY FOR BIDEN

A visit by the vice presidential nominee is expected to draw thousands to a park today.

Before Joe Biden leads an "Early Voting for Change" rally today at Sims Park, some of his supporters had to prepare Sunday.

They needed to paint a banner, and draw up signs with pencils and Crayola markers.

And what kept them going? "BBQ for Change."

This work was new to them. The New Port Richey rally featuring Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, is the first major presidential campaign event in Pasco by a Democrat since Jimmy Carter came in 1976. But Democrat Barack Obama's campaign staffers said the appearance shows the ticket will try to reach voters in new ways and places.

"I think it's because they see us in play," said Melinda Hoffman, 32, of Port Richey as she colored signs outside a new campaign office at 8125 U.S. 19.

Obama campaign officials expect several thousand people at Sims Park, where President Bush's rally four years ago is commemorated with a plaque. Gates will open at 5:30 p.m. While tickets are not required, the campaign recommends carpooling because parking is sparse. The event begins at 7:30.

The rally will kick off a Florida bus tour by Biden, a U.S. senator from Delaware.

Volunteers and campaign staff hope his working-class roots will attract west Pasco support for Obama. The west section of the county has generally middle- and low-income residents and retirees.

Democrats hope to tap support from new voters and disaffected independents and Republicans - folks like Chris Hoffman, 34, Melinda's husband.

An electrician, his work and pay have tightened after Pasco's housing boom went belly-up in the past 18 months. Though a Democrat, he said he has never voted.

Not only is he voting this year, he's volunteering for Obama, whom he said was only candidate truly addressing the economy.

Inside the same office, Helen Kelley, 49, of New Port Richey tended to painting a banner. A Republican, she supported Mitt Romney in the Republican primary in January. But John McCain turned her off.

"I think it shows it's important, coming here," Kelley said of Biden. "We're part of making the difference in Florida."

Republicans plan to counter Biden with their own sign-waving and other greetings outside today's event.

Two miles away, the riverfront park under went a transformation Sunday. Production crews put together the beams and staging equipment inside a perimeter of steel barricades.

Republican Janet Steiger, 66, of New Port Richey said she planned to drop her niece off at the rally, but not attend herself.

She was bothered by Obama's association with his outspoken former preacher.

A New Yorker, she has voted already for McCain.

"He's a good man, and he knows how to do what needs to be done," she said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

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