Obama, McCain battle in crucial central Florida
PLANT CITY, Fla.—Barack Obama and John McCain both made it a point to stop by the Parksdale Farm Market for Jim Meeks' strawberry shortcake and milkshakes as they hopped across central Florida.
Meeks likes to joke that his treats have a lucky ingredient: Both George Bushes stopped by during their campaigns, too, and won.
"You mean, I'm gonna get elected if I drink this?" Meeks remembers Obama asking.
"I said, 'There's a good chance,'" the farmer recalls with a laugh.
Joking aside, this is political reality in Florida, a crucial battleground state again this year: No region is a greater bellwether of who will win the state and its 27 electoral votes than the counties that stretch along Interstate 4 from Tampa Bay, through Plant City and into Orlando and Daytona.
Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was just here; Joe Biden wrapped up a visit Tuesday, and Obama makes another visit Wednesday. McCain has been here several times.
"We have to have the I-4 corridor or we don't win," declares Chet Renfro, manager of the McCain campaign in Pinellas County.
Recent polls show McCain with a slight lead in the region, though they show him trailing statewide.
Florida is not only the swing state richest in electoral votes but also the one with a reputation of nail-biting close calls. It was Florida that decided the presidency in 2000 after weeks of hanging chads, recounts and court rulings all the way to the Supreme Court. In the end, a mere 537 votes separated George W. Bush from Al Gore.
So far this year, the number of statewide early and absentee ballots indicates more registered Democrats have voted than Republicans.
That's true, too, at least for people casting early ballots, in two of the most populous counties along Interstate 4, in Hillsborough and in Orange, which includes the city of Orlando, according to state Division of Elections statistics. Those counties' figures do not include absentee ballots, which account for more than 40 percent of all ballots cast so far in the state.
"In Florida, Democrats have never led in voting before Election Day," said Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party.
Voters in the I-4 corridor represent a near equal mix of Democrats and Republicans. In a sign of the state's importance, Obama in September and October alone has given more than $4 million to the Florida Democratic Party, the most he has given to any state party committee.
Central Florida is home to 40 percent of the state's electorate -- a mix of urban professionals, university students and seniors. There are factory workers, farm hands who tend to the vast citrus groves, a large Puerto Rican community in Orlando and military personnel stationed at MacDill Air Force Base on the west coast. Although they tend to lean Republican, voters along the corridor are known to cross party lines.
"They know they can't take our votes for granted," said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "Unlike the other regions of the state that almost always go Republican or always go Democratic, we can be persuaded."
In the neighborhoods along this corridor, radio and television ads fill the airwaves, and yard signs, sometimes revealing conflicts within a single household, are planted outside many homes.
"It's like war around here," said Lavelle Thomas, 32, a grocery chain employee who lives in Lakeland, a rapidly growing community between Tampa and Orlando.
The Obama campaign, in particular, has waged an aggressive advertising campaign geared at convincing voters his policies are moderate and will lower taxes -- a strategy Jewett said is crucial in a region skeptical of liberal Democrats from the North.
Voters interviewed from St. Petersburg to Daytona by The Associated Press split almost equally between Obama and McCain.
Like others across the nation, people here are worried about keeping jobs and providing for their children in a struggling economy.
Marylee Gizzi, a registered Democrat in Winter Park who is voting for McCain, said she was hesitant about Obama's tax plan, which calls for increasing taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year.
"We've worked very hard for our education and for where we've gotten in life, and we feel that Barack's tax plan would directly penalize us for working very hard," she said. "We're certainly not affluent. We are getting by and we're comfortable but we have many kids to educate."
Gizzi said she might have voted differently if Hillary Rodham Clinton were on the ballot; she called Clinton's defeat in the primaries "very disheartening."
At a charity gathering for military families in downtown Orlando, Maria Parker said she was voting for McCain because his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam had demonstrated his patriotism and because of his support for Israel.
Two McCain supporters said they believed Obama was a Muslim. In fact, the Democratic candidate is a Christian, and McCain himself has tried to rebut the falsehood about Obama's religion.
Obama's supporters said they believe he can better handle the economic crisis, which has increased foreclosures and unemployment in Florida.
"A lot of people are looking for other jobs, but there's nothing out there," said Thomas, a single father who makes $250 a week at the Albertsons grocery distribution center in Plant City. The company laid off workers there earlier this year.
"Obama is promising a lot," said Thomas, who was riding a motorcycle to save money on gas. "Is it going to happen? I don't know. Am I willing to take that chance? Yes."
Margaret Henry, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who said she has previously voted Republican, is drawn to Obama's life story, as the son of a white mother and African father. "He is more open to everybody, no matter what color you are," she said.
As for Meeks, he said Obama struck him as "very energetic," a "cordial, polite person" and McCain "was a real gentleman also, a real polite type guy."
But he wouldn't say who'll get his vote.
"As a business owner," he said, "it's probably not a good idea."