McCain Needs to Win Left-leaning Florida

Florida and its 27 electoral votes are essential to John McCain’s hopes of winning the presidency — but with a week until the election even some Republicans in the state say it is tilting toward Barack Obama.

Even if Obama doesn’t take Florida — and most Republicans still believe McCain can win there — the Democrat’s decision to compete so aggressively in the Sunshine State has hampered the Arizona senator’s national campaign by forcing him to scramble to spend time and money late in the race on a state thought to be safely in the GOP column as late as the two national conventions.

With flush coffers, Obama was able to test that conventional wisdom by flooding the sprawling state’s 10 media markets with $10 million in TV ads this summer — spots that were unanswered by McCain until Labor Day.

Now, with McCain constrained by his decision to take federal funds and poll numbers showing a dead heat or an Obama lead in the state, the Illinois senator is doubling down. Obama is investing even more money on TV and matching it with personal attention in hopes of landing a death blow to Republican hopes by taking a state that went comfortably for President Bush in 2004.

“It’s tough to make up territory when the other guys are just obliterating you on the airwaves,” lamented former Republican state Chairman Al Cardenas, who conceded Obama was ahead but insisted that McCain had narrowed the gap.

Last week, Obama enjoyed better than a 4-to-1 advantage on Florida TV over McCain, spending $4.2 million to the Republican’s $1.1 million, according to Evan Tracey of the ad-watching Campaign Media Analysis Group.

McCain was helped by an additional $600,000 buy from the Republican National Committee. But Tracey said the disparity was showing up in core but affordable Republican markets such as Fort Myers and Panama City as well as in Miami, one of the nation’s most expensive ad markets.

McCain just went up on the air in Miami last week for the first time, but with only a fraction of what Obama is spending there.

Team Obama is also contesting Republican forces on the ground. Obama has dispatched two of his top campaign aides, Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes, to help oversee an expansive field operation that has been focused on registering new voters and urging participation in early voting.

Democrats have turned what was about a 250,000-voter registration edge into a 650,000 advantage. And after the first week in early voting, the party also enjoys a commanding lead, based on the party affiliation of who is showing up at polls.

“Much of our energy in the early voting is to persuade those erratic voters to get out and vote in early polling locations,” Hildebrand said, citing Floridians who don’t tend to vote every election cycle. Their eyes are especially on the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and young voters who didn’t vote in 2004.

Hildebrand wouldn’t reveal how many of the voters showing up so far were among their targets, but did allow that the rate was where they wanted to be.

“Right now, we’re in a good place,” he said. “We’re a few points ahead and have been consistently for about 30 days. Organizationally, he’s going to have a difficult time matching us on the ground.”

McCain aides disagree.

“Florida is a dead heat right now,” said Mike DuHaime, McCain’s political director. “We have always anticipated a close, hotly contested win in Florida. We have always known that a state as large and diverse as Florida with hundreds of thousands of more Democrats than Republicans would require a fight.”

Adds Arlene DiBenigno, McCain’s state director: “Too many people are calling this game way too quickly — this is not over.”

Republicans say that the Democratic advantage in early voting will be offset by their absentee ballot effort.

A McCain official notes that they already have 125,000 more absentee ballot requests from Republican voters this year than they did for the entire 2004 race.

Another Republican noted that they’ve made 25% more voter contacts — phone calls and door knocks — in the state so far than they did at this point four years ago

But even while McCain steps up his organizational intensity, the Democratic financial dominance on the air is being matched with big dollars on the ground.

Obama has more than 100 offices in the state and 400 staffers. Together with the RNC, McCain has 79 offices and 40 staffers.

And Democratic dollars have been matched by time spent in the state.

Since Labor Day, Obama and running mate Joe Biden have spent a combined 10 days in Florida. In the same period, McCain and Sarah Palin have been in the state for seven days. But they’re rushing to catch up.

Palin returned to the state Sunday, and a senior campaign aide said both she and McCain will make a number of visits to Florida before Election Day.

“We are not hurt by having to spend time and money in Florida,” said this official. “We have always had this time and money budgeted here. This has been a target state in every recent election.”

But veteran Florida Republicans worry McCain may win Florida only to lose other pivotal states needed to reach 270 electoral votes — states he may have to slight in order to hold Obama off in Florida.

“I don’t know what else Obama can do to win the state,” said Brett Doster, a Republican strategist in the state who ran Bush’s Florida reelection effort in 2004, noting the Democrat’s massive financial and organizational investment. “However, the one thing he is doing is making McCain burn resources. [McCain] could have a Pyrrhic victory on his hands.”

Marco Rubio, the outgoing speaker of the Florida House, noted recent history to make the case that Florida was never going to come easy. But this time, he said, the fierce battle is taking McCain away from places that Bush didn’t have to worry about in 2004.

“The problem that he has is that he’s having to fight other fronts that weren’t there four years ago,” Rubio observed, citing Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana.

Another Florida-based GOP consultant put it more bluntly: “The fact that McCain is having to spend time and money here is killing us.”

Most Republicans either see a toss-up race or Obama with a small lead in Florida.

“It’s a margin-of-error race,” said George Lemieux, campaign manager for Gov. Charlie Crist in 2006, conceding that Obama was ahead but within the 3- to 4-point range.

A Mason-Dixon survey last week had McCain up by 1 point, but later in the week the St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald published a poll showing Obama up by 7 points.

Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida GOP, acknowledged Obama was ahead but said McCain could close in the race’s final days.

“Ten days out anything can happen,” Greer said.

Tapped by Crist to lead the party, Greer has been at the center of complaints over whether the party and the governor have done enough to help the ticket.

Conversely, those close to Crist have grumbled privately about the effectiveness of McCain’s organization.

Greer downplayed any such rift.

“Whatever the campaign has asked Gov. Crist, has asked me, or has asked the state party, all three have answered yes, yes, yes,” Greer said.

With questions raised about Crist’s commitment to the cause, he has stepped it up in recent days, joining McCain for a bus tour across the state’s I-4 corridor battleground, appearing on a media conference call and taping a radio ad. GOP sources say he’ll also record robocalls to help McCain get out the vote in the state.

Confounding GOP strategy, however, is Obama’s seeming ability to run strongly in parts of the state where he was expected to show weakness.

Dave Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic strategist whose firm’s latest poll showed Obama up by 4 points, said geography is key. Obama, he said, has been running ahead of John Kerry in Republican congressional districts and among Hispanic and Jewish voters — two blocs Republicans had high hopes for after Obama clinched the Democratic nomination earlier this year.

The Miami-based Rubio, who also thinks Obama is slightly ahead, agreed, noting that Obama was running strong in south Florida and even up in parts of heavily Republican southwest Florida

“That is an area composed of upper-income retirees who have seen their source of income hit pretty hard,” Rubio said, citing the impact the market dive has had on savings accounts.

A top McCain official said the campaign's challenge was just that.

“The stock market collapse being blamed on Republicans is what gave [Obama] a lead in Florida,” said this source. “The campaign has the greatest financial advantage in the history of politics, the greatest political environment for a Democrat in 32, or maybe 76 years and a candidate with great political skills. And with all that said, it took a historic financial collapse to give him a lead in Florida.”

But, this aide said, withstanding all that, McCain is still in contention and even on the move.

But whether McCain does or doesn’t pull it off, Obama has forced him on defense in a place that he had hoped to have locked up by now.

“He had the resources to run a spread offense,” Beattie said of Obama. “And [the economic crisis] heightened their ability to spread it even further. McCain has no wiggle room. They have to defend everywhere. And when you have to win Florida, it takes a lot of money.”

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