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  1. Florida Politics

President Barack Obama back in Florida this week for official events, but also campaigning

Published Feb. 21, 2012

President Barack Obama is rewriting Florida's advertising tagline: Come for the sun and soak up the electoral votes.

When Air Force One lands Thursday in Miami, then Orlando, it will mark Obama's 14th visit since his inauguration, and his second this year.

Not to mention trips this month by Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama, and a string of previous jaunts by the two. Tampa, Tallahassee, Orlando, Homestead, Cape Canaveral, Sarasota, Miami … they've been everywhere.

As Obama's re-election effort accelerates, the frequent travel to Florida and other key states highlights a major advantage of incumbency and raises questions about politicking on taxpayer time and money. Turn on CNN these days and you're likely to see Obama on the road, with a campaign rally-like crowd behind him.

With 29 electoral votes, Florida is the biggest prize among the 10 most closely watched battleground states. The Obama campaign has several paths to 270 electoral votes without Florida, but Republicans haven't won the presidency without Florida in nearly 90 years.

"It would be naive to think there wasn't a political or campaign purpose to most of his travel," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego who has studied presidential travel. "It's part of the permanent campaign presidents are engaged in these days."

Ohio has been Obama's top swing state target with 17 visits, followed by Pennsylvania with 15, then Florida, according to statistics maintained by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. Last week, Obama paid his ninth visit to Wisconsin. He drops in frequently to Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and Nevada. Travel to Republican-heavy states is less common.

Apart from partisan gripes — Democrats complained about President George W. Bush's travel — is a question of using taxpayer money for activities perceived as having a political element. Often, fundraisers are tacked on to an official trip.

That formula will be on display this week in Florida. On Thursday afternoon, Obama will hold an official event at the University of Miami, where he'll discuss plans to shore up the economy. But while in town, he'll rake in cash at the Biltmore Hotel and the home of Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge, where a photo with the president will cost $15,000.

After that, Air Force One will ferry him to Orlando for a $30,000-per-person fundraising dinner at the home of NBA star Vince Carter.

Taxpayers will pick up a big part of the cost.

When Obama took Air Force One to Orlando last month for an official event focused on growing tourism, it cost $179,750 per flight hour (including fuel, annual maintenance and other costs). The trip down was two hours and, afterward, Obama flew to New York for a fundraiser before returning to Washington. Total air time was about five hours, or $898,000.

For the political portion — the trip to New York — Obama and any travelers are only required to pay the government a fee equivalent to a first-class fare. An array of other costs, from security to communications, are picked up by the government.

"Every president is hit with criticism for using taxpayer resources," said Brendan Doherty, a politics professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who is writing a book, The Rise of the President's Permanent Campaign. "But if we required presidential campaigns to pay for it all, presidents would never leave the White House because it costs so much."

At times, the president's official events have been hard to distinguish from campaign events, such as his trip to Iowa last summer where he stood in front of a picturesque barn adorned with an American flag. Hay bales were topped with red, white and blue.

The appearance of overt campaigning hit a high pitch in November, when Obama traveled through North Carolina and Virginia to promote his jobs bill. The jaunt carried all the hallmarks of a campaign swing, down to the sleek black bus he rode in.

"It's just coincidence that every time the president gets on a plane, a helicopter or a bus he's immediately carted off to important states for the November election," scoffed Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

"We can be intellectually honest and have this conversation. Other presidents have campaigned," Priebus acknowledged. "However, this president has taken campaigning to a new stratosphere."

The White House does not deny the swing state emphasis but says Obama "expanded the political map" in 2008 and wants to tap into that support as he pursues his agenda.

Officials argue that Florida is representative of the diversity of the country and has distinct issues, such as the gulf oil spill, that brought presidential travel. Obama's trip to Disney World in January was to boost tourism, a goal shared by Republicans.

"The president views it as one of the chief responsibilities of the office to spend some time outside Washington, D.C., talking to people all across the country about the economy and about how they're affected by the policy decisions that he's making here," spokeswoman Joanna Rosholm said.

It's not just Obama criss-crossing Florida.

While the Republican presidential candidates campaigned across the state before the Jan. 31 primary, the White House made its presence felt, too: Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited a charter school in South Florida; Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to the Everglades to announce a ban on importing Burmese pythons; Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stopped in Tampa to tout the $536 million I-4/Lee Roy Selmon Expressway Connector; Labor Secretary Hilda Solis met with minority businesspeople in Orlando; and Mrs. Obama visited a Hispanic grocer in Tampa to highlight healthy eating (and made campaign fundraising stops in Sarasota and Palm Beach).

The attention on Florida hasn't let up since the Republican presidential contenders moved on. This month alone: under-secretary of commerce and former Tampa mayoral candidate Frank Sanchez led a summit at the University of Tampa with Hispanic residents (a constituency seen as crucial to the president's re-election); Biden visited Tallahassee to tout college affordability (and get face time with student voters, key to Obama in 2008); and Mrs. Obama made a three-stop swing to promote her fitness initiative.

Obama started his swing state focus almost immediately after the 2008 election. Three weeks after his inauguration, he went to states he had carried: Indiana, Florida and Virginia. In that regard he was following his predecessor, who had a disproportional focus on battleground states.

"Other presidents did it, too, but George W. Bush really stepped it up and Barack Obama has continued that," said Doherty, the professor writing about presidential travel.

He said Obama's travel is roughly on par with Bush's. News reports have noted Obama's hastened pace, but Doherty points out that Bush during his third year stuck close to Washington to deal with the Iraq war.

"It's hard to separate the electoral aspect from a president's job," Doherty said. "President Obama on the campaign trail is advocating positions he has pushed through his office. It's hard to draw that line."

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