By David Lauter
Tribune Washington Bureau
TAMPA, Fla. — Even as the lion’s share of attention in the presidential campaign goes to the battleground of Ohio and the storm-battered states of the Mid-Atlantic, the outcome to the south, in the nation’s largest swing state, now seems very much in doubt.
Mitt Romney moved into a lead here after the first presidential debate, and since then, aides have insisted that Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, sat solidly in their column. But with several polls showing President Barack Obama’s fortunes improving here and Democrats performing well in early voting — as of Thursday morning, they led by about 59,000 out of more than 3 million absentee and in-person early votes — Romney has had to devote precious hours to defending his position in the state.
With polls now in a dead heat, Romney campaigned in Florida on Saturday, returned Wednesday for rallies in Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, and is expected back over the weekend, when Obama also is scheduled to campaign here.
For Obama, victory in Florida is a prize; for Romney it’s a necessity. Debates about whether Romney can carry Ohio or other Midwestern states become moot without a win here.
The battle helps illustrate how, in these closing days of the campaign, the presidential race has tightened, with each of the major swing states testing Obama’s ability to hold a different part of the coalition that elected him four years ago.
In Ohio, the outcome turns on which man can most appeal to white, working-class voters. Obama has wooed them with constant reminders of his bailout of the auto industry and warnings about Romney’s background in the private equity business. Virginia and Colorado test how much loyalty the president still has among college-educated suburbanites, particularly women.
Florida’s complex politics have generated multiple skirmishes. The two sides have battled over seniors and Medicare. Republicans have sought to attract votes from South Florida’s large Jewish population with attacks on Obama’s policies toward Israel. And on the airwaves, both sides are fighting for the final sliver of undecided single women with dueling ads about Romney’s policies on abortion and contraception.
But the biggest contest here, as in several other key states, involves Latinos, who make up more than one-fifth of Florida’s 19 million residents, although a smaller share of its 12 million registered voters. With Cuban-Americans still mostly supportive of Republicans, the competition here focuses on Puerto Ricans, a fast-growing population now approaching 1 million, about a third of whom live in the Interstate 4 corridor that runs between Tampa and Orlando, the state’s traditional swing region.
The two campaigns, both staffed with veterans of past contests that have delivered famously close statewide results, have made very different bets. The Obama campaign predicts an increased turnout among minorities and has focused heavily on making that happen, while Romney’s hopes hinge on persuading and holding late-deciders.
For more than a year, Obama’s campaign has built a massive organization aimed at registering, motivating and now turning out voters, particularly minorities. That campaign has succeeded in “changing the electorate,” said Ashley Walker, the campaign’s state director.
Walker points to a net increase of roughly 300,000 Latino voters since the last election, with only about 10 percent registering as Republicans, and 150,000 blacks, who are overwhelmingly Democrats. Obama carried the state in 2008 by slightly more than 236,000 votes. Because the recession largely shut down white migration here from other states as the black and Puerto Rican population grew, the electorate has grown more diverse. Whether a higher vote among Latinos offsets losses Obama has suffered among white voters will largely determine the outcome here.
Walker brushes aside questions about the small number of remaining undecided voters. “This is a race about who are the folks who are going to turn out the vote,” she said, insisting that the Democrats have “a far superior ground game” in the state and “that’s going to make the difference on election day.”
On the Republican side, Romney’s senior adviser in Florida, Brett Doster, insisted his party’s turnout operation can keep pace with Obama’s. More importantly, though, he argued that significant numbers of uncommitted voters remain, including among Puerto Ricans, many of whom do not register in either party.
“If you’re a nonpartisan voter, you’re in play,” he said.
Democrats overestimate Obama’s appeal to Puerto Ricans, he added, predicting that come Election Day, Republicans will win a majority of Latinos even outside the party’s longtime base in Miami’s Cuban-American communities.
“We’ve had opportunities to play on their turf in a significant way,” he said.
Romney gets a boost by campaigning with the state’s well-known Latino Republican political figures, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Sen. Mel Martinez, as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has great popularity among Latinos here, Doster said. “We have all the credibility on our side.”
Obama aides believe they trump officeholders with volunteers in communities - people like Lynnette Acosta. A 34-year-old former Peace Corps worker, Acosta began working for Obama more than a year ago, when she was on maternity leave from her job as an information-technology project manager. She’s now a volunteer national co-chairwoman of the campaign and says she’s long since lost count of the number of voters she’s contacted.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Acosta arrived in Orlando about five and a half years ago, and has watched the Puerto Rican migration to the region accelerate.
“We’ve had a massive wave in the last five years,” she said. “It’s amazing. It’s really changed the dynamics of the area.”
Republicans had openings, she said, noting that “this is a more socially conservative community,” and Democratic positions on abortion, same-sex marriage and other moral-values issues meet with resistance.
“The Puerto Rican community here is definitely up for grabs” in the future, and even in this election, “it could have gone either way,” she said. But at this point, “the community has definitely aligned itself with President Obama.”
She cited several reasons, particularly Obama’s policies on education and health care. The health law, which polarizes voters in many parts of the country, “is a really, really big plus” among Puerto Ricans, who are used to — and like — the government-administered health care system on the island, she said. Obama’s appointment of a Puerto Rican, Sonia Sotomayor, to the Supreme Court, has also become a “point of national pride.”
Moreover, even though Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, are not directly affected by the fight over U.S. immigration laws, “it’s really become an issue of unity” with other Latinos.
Polling bears that out. A survey conducted in late September in six swing states by the widely respected Latino Decisions company found that even though Latinos in Florida were considerably less likely than Latinos in the other states to say they personally know an illegal immigrant (49 percent in Florida, 64 percent overall), 25 percent said that immigration policy was the “most important” issue in their decision on whom to vote for, and another 30 percent said it was among the top issues — numbers only slightly smaller than found elsewhere.
Among many voters, she said, the “sentiment is that the Republican Party, they just don’t like Latinos.”