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Two campaigns, two realities in Fla.

Candidates visit state with diverging goals

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

TAMPA - Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both campaigned yesterday in Florida - until recently forbidden territory for Democratic contenders - but with radically different priorities, evidence that the two rivals are operating on separate calendars based on their divergent positions in the nominating race.

At a lunchtime rally here, front-runner Obama delivered fresh attacks aimed at John McCain's foreign policy and ties to lobbyists, the latest gesture his campaign has made to indicate he has moved on to general-election concerns. At her events, Clinton presented her most exhaustive argument yet for the party to seat delegates from renegade primaries held by Florida and Michigan in January, one of her few options for overtaking Obama.

Both Clinton and Obama avoided campaigning in Florida before the state's Jan. 29 primary, respecting a Democratic National Committee boycott of a contest that had been brought forward in violation of party rules. Clinton has made the state's 185 disputed delegates - the majority of which she would win based upon her decisive primary victory - central to her contention that the Democratic nominating race is far from settled.

"I say that not counting Florida and Michigan is changing a central governing rule of this country," she said yesterday in Boca Raton. She likened her fight to legitimize the results of those primaries to earlier civil-rights crusades on behalf of women and blacks. She said that she and Obama share an "obligation to carry on this legacy and ensure that in our nominating process every voice is heard and every single vote is counted."

Obama did not mention the dispute over the state's delegates, but his greeting to the crowd at a downtown Tampa hockey arena made oblique reference to the peculiar relationship the Democratic candidates have with supporters in a state they were effectively banned from visiting for any purpose other than fund-raising. "It is good to be back in Florida," Obama said. "I know you guys have been holding down the fort and it is good to be back."

Obama's first campaign stop in Florida since September offered the candidate a belated opportunity to make a direct impression in a crucial general-election state that presents a uniquely complicated demographic mix for his candidacy, according to an aide.

"We're starting from scratch," said Jen Psaki, an Obama spokeswoman. "Over the next few days we will be reintroducing Barack Obama to the people of Florida."

Upon his arrival in the state, Obama told the Associated Press his campaign was working to reach a deal with the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee that would "give Floridians a voice at the convention." But, unlike Clinton, Obama gave no indication he believed the state's delegates should participate in the nominating process.

Obama made fleeting, polite reference to Clinton and focused his attention on McCain. "He has spent the last week explaining his foreign policy by saying who he won't talk to," Obama said. "That's your foreign policy?"

Obama's campaign acknowledges that Florida presents Obama a unique challenge. The state went solidly for George W. Bush in 2004, and its electorate is a puzzle of voting blocs - Jews, Latinos, and older whites - that have vexed Obama in the primaries. Given the influence of Cuban exiles and Jews concerned with Israel, foreign-policy issues often predominate in Florida more than they do elsewhere.

"There is in many senses a blank slate here," said Psaki. "People don't know much about Barack Obama and it's our job to fix that."

Obama's campaign has long boasted that its strong organizing efforts during the primaries would give Obama a head start on McCain, who competed in fewer states and mustered less enthusiasm from voters and volunteers nationwide. But in Florida, where McCain won the hard-fought Republican primary with support from much of the party's establishment, Obama is starting from behind.

Obama has begun moving a "handful" of field organizers into Florida, according to Psaki, and they will open offices to augment the campaign's longstanding fund-raising operation in the state.

Obama volunteers were trying to enlist new voters outside yesterday's rally, which drew 15,000, part of a nationwide registration drive.

"I don't vote," said David Shakir, 29, a limousine chauffeur from Tampa who received a form and registered for the first time in his life. "But I'm voting for him."

The Tampa rally also offered an opportunity for formal recognition of a volunteer-run, grass-roots Obama group that - in accordance with DNC instructions - had operated in recent months without ties to the campaign's headquarters in Chicago. "The Tampa Bay O Train is now becoming part of Obama for America," Terry Watson, the group's chair, said.

Obama's schedule this week is "targeted at particular communities" with which he has not had official contact in Florida, according to Psaki. After leaving Tampa, Obama held a town-hall meeting in Orlando, home to a growing Puerto Rican population. Today he will visit a synagogue in Boca Raton, home to many elderly voters, and tomorrow he will address a Cuban Independence Day celebration hosted by a hard-line exile group in Miami.

One Obama supporter at yesterday's rally said she was glad to see Obama visiting the region to make his case in person to voters.

"This is a redneck area" with "a lot of Bubbas," said Noreen Murphy, 60, who works in an X-ray clinic in Valrico, near Tampa, and voted for John Edwards in the primary. "They see this man who speaks perfect English, well-educated, wears a suit. They think he was handed everything. It will be useful if they can connect with him. He has a lot of myths to dispel."

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