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Uncertainty marks fight for Fla. vote

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As John Edwards delivered an address in a steamy airport hangar brimming with nearly 1,000 supporters yesterday, John Kerry stood behind him, surveying the polyglot crowd that presents him with one of his most important and confounding electoral challenges.

In the audience, blacks, Hispanics, farmers, veterans, seniors, and suburban moms cheered for Kerry's new running mate. But in reality, these disparate Floridians have wildly differing interests. And with opinion polls extremely tight in the Sunshine State, Kerry cannot afford to cede any group to President Bush this fall.

Kerry passed up local power broker Bob Graham, a veteran senator and former governor, during his search for a running mate. Graham is the one man who might have delivered the state's 27 electoral votes to him. It remains unclear what effect Edwards, the telegenic North Carolinian, will have here. With Florida's sprawling geography and population of 16 million, the Kerry campaign must quickly decide how to best fight for the state and where to spend campaign resources, including Edwards's time.

Half-a-dozen crucial voting blocs are scattered up and down the state: blue-collar conservatives in the Panhandle, a diverse group of Latino neighborhoods in and around Miami, middle-class suburban and exurban communities in the center of the state, a massive veterans population on both coasts, and seniors everywhere. Even Cuban-Americans, once solidly GOP, could be within Kerry's reach.

Yesterday, Edwards, his suit jacket discarded and brow soaked with perspiration, told the crowd that Kerry was "somebody who understands their lives, who knows about their struggles," describing himself and the Democratic nominee as champions of the working class, a clear pitch to moderate and conservative voters in central and north Florida. In 2000, when few major issues compelled American voters, the state was the scene of an exceptionally tight election and a 36-day post-election drama that ended in a Supreme Court decision. George W. Bush won the state by just 537 votes, giving him the state's then-25 electoral votes and the presidency.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, an economy that shed hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the mounting casualties and open-ended commitment of the Iraq war, Florida is certain to be vigorously contested once again. Memories of the recount controversy have already stoked both Republicans and Democrats for political combat. Edwards and Kerry are expected to stump hard here.

Going into the general election, the Kerry-Edwards ticket lacks at least one advantage that the Al Gore-Joseph I. Lieberman ticket had in 2000: the Florida Jewish vote. Edwards is not likely to bring out Jewish voters as Lieberman did four years ago, according to political scientists. But Edwards's humble southern roots and all-American aura could help Kerry make inroads in the staunchly conservative northern part of the state, a region filled with farmers and blue-collar workers and featuring a distinctly Dixie culture.

There is polling data to support the idea that the North Carolina senator could resonate in Florida's conservative Panhandle: Exit polls during the Democratic primary showed him running strong among independent and GOP white voters in states such as Wisconsin, Virginia, and Tennessee. Theodore S. Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Kerry's selection of Edwards would "help Kerry some in parts of Florida, in the north and central parts, the orange grove areas, which are more southern in culture."

But other political analysts say that blacks, Jews, Cuban-Americans, and Hispanics in Greater Miami will be crucial to Democrats' fortunes, and these observers see little advantage to Edwards's presence on the Democratic ticket.

"It's all about their base -- blacks, Hispanics, older Jews, Cuban-Americans. They have to mobilize them," said Ben Bishin, a political science professor at the University of Miami. "I don't see Kerry, even with Edwards, making much progress in the north. That's a staunchly conservative area."

Recent polls show a dead heat in Florida between Bush and Kerry -- unchanged through months of troubling news from Iraq that hurt Bush and assisted Kerry nationally. An American Research Group poll of likely Florida voters last month found Kerry with 47 percent support and Bush with 46 percent. Over the last four months, the number of undecided Floridians has dipped from 7 percent to 5 percent, according to polls.

In 2000, Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a presidential ticket, drew out the Jewish vote in droves. Edwards, a Methodist, is unlikely to have the same effect. But another ethnic bloc -- Cubans -- may be unexpectedly ripe ground for Kerry. Traditionally conservative, this group has swelled with recent arrivals from Cuba, who left the island more for economic opportunity than hatred of Fidel Castro. This new Cuban population tends to vote Democrat, according to Bishin, a close observer of Cuban-American politics. These newcomers also are up in arms about a recent Bush administration decision to limit return visits to Cuba.

Meanwhile, the GOP's loyal Cuban-American base -- those who fled Castro in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s -- have recently been angered by Bush's decision to allow agricultural loopholes in the trade embargo against Cuba and by the return of Cuban plane hijackers to that country for sentencing.

Anger with Bush may keep some of his base of support at home on Election Day, said Bishin. "If turnout for Bush drops by 20 percent among conservative Cubans, that could be huge for Kerry," he said.

Finally, central Florida has become a repository of moderate voters, as new neighborhoods spring up along the Interstate 4 corridor that cuts across the center of the state. Exit polls from the Democratic primaries showed Edwards running strong among those making $75,000 or more and concerned about outsourcing of white-collar jobs, a theme that has received much discussion along I-4 of late. But Bush, pushing tax cuts and strong defense -- and getting crucial help again from his brother Jeb, the popular two-term governor -- could also run strong here. In the end, Kerry and Edwards may face the same kind of vote-by-vote battle that Gore and Lieberman faced four years ago. Another photo finish is distinctly possible, say political analysts.

"It's the same equation as last time," said Bishin.

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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