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All Political Roads Lead To Florida's I - 4 Corridor Swing Voters May Determine Who Occupies The Oval Office Next Year
All Political Roads Lead To Florida's I - 4 Corridor
October 11, 2004
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Every day, an army of campaigners fans out across central Florida's ``I-4 corridor'' in search of suburban moms, transplanted Puerto Ricans, teenagers and any other potential voter wavering between John Kerry and George W. Bush.
Spanning the state from Tampa on the west, through Disney World and tourist playground Orlando, to Daytona Beach, the famous race-car hub on the east, the region named after the interstate highway that links the coasts is considered by election analysts to be the key to victory in Florida.
``It's the swing part of the swing state,'' said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.
``It's the most important part of the most important state in the most important election,'' said Patti Sharp, an Orlando-area director of America Coming Together, or ACT, a voter mobilization group committed to defeating the Republican Bush.
Bush won the seven counties that touch Interstate 4 by 4,400 votes in 2000. In the 14 counties analysts consider the full I-4 corridor, his margin was about 44,000 votes while his margin in the entire state was just 537 votes.
No trip to Florida by Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who carries the Democratic banner, or Bush, the incumbent whose brother Jeb is the state's governor, is complete without a stop in the I-4 corridor. Airwaves are filled with political ads.
But spurred by the 2000 vote fiasco and the small margin that eventually decided the presidency, Republicans and Democrats are waging an old-fashioned political dogfight, a ferocious door-to-door battle in a region where they believe there are more undecided and ``persuadable'' voters than anywhere else.
``It's different this year. It's a ground game,'' said Sharp, a veteran activist. ``It's been an air game (broadcast advertising) for a long time but people are going back and knocking on doors.''
Republicans in Pinellas County, near Tampa, recruited 4,800 volunteers, triple the number in past elections, to end a string of Democratic presidential victories in the county going back to 1988, said Peggy O'Shea, a local party official.
``It's been close. Democrats have won but not by much. It's doable,'' she said.
Of Florida's nearly 9.9 million registered voters, about 3.9 million, or 40 percent, live in the 14 I-4 counties. About 1,481,000 are registered Republican and 1,469,000 Democrat, according to state figures from August.
The I-4 region has 685,000 of the state's 1.7 million voters who are not registered with any party.
Campaigners from both sides are searching for voters like Christian Garcia, 23, who moved to Orlando from Puerto Rico two years ago and will cast his first presidential vote on Nov. 2.
``A lot of Puerto Ricans are talking about the election. They have very mixed emotions as to Kerry or Bush,'' said Garcia, who favors Bush.
Garcia said health care and the economy, rather than the Iraq war, head his personal agenda.
``It's hard to find a job for young people. Bush has to do a better job creating jobs but whoever wins has to concentrate on the economy and the middle class.''
From a strip mall office decorated with street maps of Orlando, Patti Sharp dispatches dozens of campaigners every day. Some of them have temporarily moved here from other parts of the country, recognition of another tight race in a state decided only after five weeks of court battles four years ago.
``People in the Hispanic community are interested in, number one, health care, and number two, education,'' said Alberto Perez, a bilingual ACT canvasser who relocated from New York.
Northern Florida and the wealthy southwest are largely Republican turf. Southeast Florida, the most heavily populated part of the state that includes Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, is mostly Democratic.
But I-4 provides a rich mix: blue and white collar workers, young professionals, Puerto Ricans and South and Central Americans, traditional Republicans and Democrats. Analysts say the area's demographics are changing, with tens of thousands of newcomers who have not formed solid party alliances.
In Orlando's Orange County, which chose Democrat Al Gore in 2000 after backing Republicans in previous elections, Hispanic voters for the first time outnumber blacks.
``This is a low-rise New York City. It's just as diverse,'' said Doug Head, the Orange County Democratic Party chairman who says Democrats have out-registered Republicans 2-1 since 2000.
Again, Sunshine State In Spotlight Swing Voters New To Central Florida's I-4 Corridor May Determine Who Occupies The Oval Office Next Year.
Cox International Correspondent
October 11, 2004
Kissimmee --- Maria Santiago may not know it, but she is the object of keen political desires.
Like thousands of other newly minted Floridians, Santiago recently moved to a voter-rich strip of Central Florida that many experts believe could hold one of the keys to the White House in next month's election. Even more important, she is an independent swing voter who hasn't yet made up her mind between President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.
''I'm going to vote but it's very hard to decide,'' said Santiago, 36, a Puerto Rican who recently moved to Florida from the Northeast with her husband, Angel, and opened a party favor store in this Spanish-accented city near Orlando. "Both of them are making promises I doubt they'll keep. It's going to be hard to choose."
Experts say fast-growing Florida, the nation's fourth-most populous state and home of 27 electoral votes, will likely once again play center stage in the presidential contest. Opinion polls show the race a virtual tossup in the Sunshine State.
Observers hope there will be no repeat of the debacle that saw Bush squeak out a disputed 537-vote win over Al Gore in 2000, but lawsuits are already flying and worries abound over issues ranging from new touch-screen voting machines to absentee ballot rules.
Last week, Florida's Democratic Party sued Republican Secretary of State Glenda Hood, the state's top elections official, claiming she illegally ordered county elections supervisors to reject incomplete voter-registration forms. Meanwhile, the NAACP sued Volusia County's supervisor of elections for not opening an early-voting site in the area where most African-Americans live.
''There have also been lawsuits filed over the touch screens because they have no paper back-up,'' said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political scientist at Florida State University. ''Unless it's a blow-out, I think we're headed for another disputed election. It could be even worse than 2000, with more litigation.''
Susan MacManus, who teaches politics at the University of South Florida in Tampa, agrees, but her doubts center on a change in laws regarding absentee ballots, which no longer require a witness signature.
''With the stakes so high, I wouldn't be surprised to see another round of doubts and controversy,'' she said. ''Most people are hoping for the best, but fear the worst.''
Part of what makes Florida so closely contested is its dynamic population growth, which has brought a wide range of ethnic and racial groups to the state, upsetting long-standing political traditions.
Historically a part of the solidly Democratic South, Florida mirrored the rest of the region's swing to the GOP starting with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. By the late 1990s, a majority of seats in the legislature and the governorship were firmly in GOP hands.
African-Americans continued supporting Democrats, but their clout gradually diminished over the years as a huge wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants moved to the state. Minorities now make up 32 percent of Florida's population, with blacks accounting for 15 percent and Hispanics 17 percent.
The most recognizable Hispanic group has been the Cuban-American community based in South Florida, long considered a bastion of GOP support because the party generally takes a hard line against Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba.
But the last 15 years have seen an explosive Hispanic influx to a 130-mile-long swath of Central Florida, dubbed the ''Interstate 4 corridor,'' which stretches from St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Mexico to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic. Immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Colombia and particularly Puerto Rico have been drawn to the region by jobs in the tourism industry, cheap housing and the warm Florida weather that reminds them of home.
These new Hispanic residents now number more than 600,000, and are seen as a potentially potent counter-force to South Florida's 600,000 Cuban-Americans, prompting a fierce battle over the past year by supporters of both parties to register new voters. Both campaigns have blanketed the I-4 corridor with a barrage of television advertising, much of it in Spanish, while more than 150,000 new voters have been registered in the district.
''It's a group exploding in size but also unpredictable in how they'll vote,'' said MacManus. ''Gore won the area in 2000, but Jeb Bush [a Republican and the president's brother] won in 2002 when he ran for re-election as governor.''
While Democrats are counting on wooing non-Cuban Hispanics because the group has traditionally voted Democratic, the Republicans have ceded nothing. National surveys show as many as 40 percent of Hispanic voters are still undecided.
''Bush is going to win,'' said Edgar Silva, 43, a Colombian immigrant who runs a small business in Kissimmee and is active in the president's campaign. "It's his reaction and leadership after 9/11. People like me from Latin countries have seen what kidnapping and terrorism can do. I don't want to live like that and I don't want my children to live like that."
Terrorism a big issue
Indeed, the terrorism threat is a big issue in Florida, MacManus said, because the state has numerous major ports, tourist attractions and airports that make it vulnerable, not to mention the 2001 anthrax attack in South Florida that shook the nation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 catastrophe.
"I think it's a bigger issue here than in most states," she said.
But, like many other Americans, some of the new Hispanic residents seem far from convinced the president's war on terror has followed the best course. Puerto Ricans, in particular, have traditionally served in high numbers in the nation's armed services, and many families with relatives serving overseas feel strongly about the issue.
"Bush has gotten a lot of people killed in Iraq," said Nanci Dominguez, a New York-born Puerto Rican who now lives in Kissimmee. "My brother is in the military and he's got his doubts. I respect Bush because he's president, but he's made a lot of mistakes."
For still others, the main issue centers on their pocketbooks. While Florida's economy has fared better than most in the past few years, this season's string of four hurricanes blasting the state has left many small businesses reeling.
Political experts say it's too early to tell if the damage and dislocation left by the hurricanes will hurt voter turnout. The I-4 corridor was hit hard by the storms, especially the Orlando area, but campaign activity has begun to heat up again. The district remains the largest up-for-grabs territory in Florida, so the pace seems sure to intensify.
Meanwhile, the rest of Florida appears to be firmly in the hands of one candidate or the other. President Bush has a solid lock on the state's conservative Panhandle, along with the upscale Southwest coast. Kerry, meanwhile, is counting on support from African-Americans and the South Florida urban corridor where Democrats have long dominated.
One possible surprise, however, could be the Cuban-American community. While Bush won about 80 percent of Cuban-American votes in 2000, the president recently tightened restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba and sending money to relatives there, an effort pushed by hard-line Cuban-American leaders.
Opinion surveys show not all Cuban-Americans like the measures, though, and some wonder if Bush's once-solid Cuban support might be showing cracks.
"I've seen some data suggesting that instead of taking 80 percent of the Cuban vote, Bush might get only 60 percent," deHaven-Smith said. "That's very significant, and could be enough to turn the election." Photo Edgar Silva (below), a Colombian immigrant who also lives in Kissimmee, has worked for Bush's re-election. / MIKE WILLIAMS / Staff Photo Puerto Rican immigrant Maria Santiago of Kissimmee, Fla., is undecided about her vote. / MIKE WILLIAMS / Staff