Obama starting key Florida swing with rally at UM

Sep 19, 2008

BETH REINHARD AND MARC CAPUTO

The Miami Herald



After one of Wall Street's worst weeks ever, Barack Obama brings his campaign and its hope-and-change theme to Florida, one of the states hit hardest by the economic crisis.

At best, he is tied -- but gaining ground -- in Florida polls with Republican John McCain. A national Gallup Poll, showing Thursday that Obama has opened up a four-percentage-point lead nationwide, suggests that his stock with voters is improving as the stock market tanks.

Amid the financial troubles, Obama's visit Friday will be pivotal to swaying public opinion just as the first absentee ballots are mailed. Obama will headline rallies at the University of Miami's Bank- United Center on Friday and in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville on Saturday.

'The days are ticking down, and I believe this campaign visit is very, very important,' said Terrie Brady, president of the teachers union in Jacksonville. 'If he stays on message, it will be a home run. Like Bill Clinton said, `it's the economy, stupid.' '

Obama's camp says the implosion on Wall Street is reshaping the race and will steer more voters toward the candidate whose party hasn't been in charge in the White House. But after months in which Obama outspent McCain on television and flooded Florida with as many as 400 paid workers and thousands of volunteers, political analysts are still calling Florida a tossup or shading it red.

Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, said this week that the Democratic ticket will plow $39 million into Florida. Republicans are dubious that Obama will follow through if his poll numbers don't start to climb.

`PERFECT MICROCOSM'

'McCain should not be where he is right now. He should be trailing by 10 points,' said Alberto Martinez, a state House Republican spokesman. ``We're a perfect microcosm for the rest of the country as to why McCain is doing better than expected, even though everything is breaking the other guy's way.'

Obama's challenge is to quickly influence Floridians who will soon vote by absentee ballots that are now being mailed in 21 counties and overseas. Early voting begins in just 31 days.

VOTING BLOCS

Obama seeks to reach female voters as well as Hispanic voters like Armando Zuniga, 47, a handyman who can't afford a family vacation and spends $150 a week on gasoline while commuting from Boca Raton to Miami. He's a Democrat who can't stand President Bush, yet he's still not sold on Obama.

'He's not getting through,' Zuniga said. ``I'm not getting anything from him that makes me feel he has the solution. The Democrats are usually more inclined to help the middle class, but I don't know that either candidate has a plan.'

No wonder some voters are conflicted. In dueling ads in Florida, McCain says he's a 'proven reformer' and calls his rival all 'talk and taxes,' while Obama says that only he can bring 'real change' and promises a $1,000 tax cut for middle-class families.

Obama also tries to capitalize on stock-market jitters by tying McCain to President Bush's unsuccessful plan to 'privatize' Social Security in a new ad airing in retiree-rich Palm Beach County. A longer spot, airing in Orlando and Tampa, paints a bleak economic picture: flat paychecks, falling property values, rising healthcare costs.

'This isn't just a string of bad luck,' Obama says in the ad. ``The truth is that while you've been living up to your responsibilities, Washington has not.'

That's the same message being pitched by high-profile Obama supporters, like Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a former bank executive who mocked McCain's comment that 'the fundamentals of the economy are strong,' and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, hosts of a forum on women's economic security in St. Petersburg on Monday.

A PARTY WEBSITE

The Florida Democratic Party, meantime, has set up a website called 'Florida vs. McCain' that attempts to portray the Arizona senator as out of touch with Florida families on everything from hurricane insurance to housing. The grim statistics: Florida is leading the nation in jobs lost and running second in mortgage foreclosures.

'It's a perfect time for Obama to be here, because he really needs to get his message out in Florida, where our list of economic woes is so long,' said Monica Russo, president of SEIU, the largest union of healthcare workers in Florida.

`ENTHUSIASM GAP'

The 'enthusiasm gap' is one of the factors the Obama campaign is counting on: Voter registration in Florida has surged in the Democrats' favor since 2006. They've gained 176,000 voters since then; Republicans have lost 8,262. Democrats now have an edge of 468,209.

Obama is accustomed to big venues, like the 8,000-seat BankUnited Center. By contrast, McCain has struggled to attract enthusiastic crowds.

His running mate, Sarah Palin, who has taken a starring role since McCain named her, will make her Florida debut Sunday at a Central Florida retirement community.




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