Republicans woo early Fla. voters


A sign in English, Spanish and Creole hangs at a polling station at Miami's City Hall where early voting began Monday, Jan. 14, 2008, two weeks before Election Day in Florida. Democratic and Republican presidential races are on the ballot, as well as a proposal designed to cut property taxes.

Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 10:51 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2008 at 10:51 a.m.

MIAMI - Florida's presidential primaries could almost be decided by the time most polling places open next week.

That's because early voting started Jan. 14 and absentee ballots started hitting the mail last month. Half a million people or more may have voted before primary day actually gets here Jan. 29 a candidate who reaches those early birds could build a formidable lead.

That has some Republican candidates trying different strategies to reach voters who aren't waiting to cast their ballots (the Democrats aren't campaigning here because it moved up its primary in violation of both parties' rules). There are Web sites, rallies and mailers pushing early voting.

"There's no playbook on this because it hasn't been done in Florida," said David Johnson, a GOP strategist and former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. "The campaigns are trying to learn as they go along what that playbook might be."

More than a third of the votes cast in Florida in the 2004 general election were cast early or by mail, taking advantage of a 2000 rule change allowing absentee ballot requests without having to prove that voting in person would be a hardship. As of Sunday, more than 240,000 voters had voted early, and more than 225,000 absentee ballots have been returned (out of at least 567,000 absentee ballots requests).

The candidate probably working hardest to reach Florida's early voters has been former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. His strategy has been to almost ignore the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina to focus on Florida, which has a large population of New York transplants. He hopes a win here would boost his campaign in advance of "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when 24 states vote.

"We came here today in particular to remind everyone that voting is now going on absentee voting," Giuliani said after addressing supporters in Hialeah on Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses.

On the Democratic side, a group of Hillary Clinton's supporters are trying to fill the void caused by the party's boycott by reaching out to potential voters through FloridaforHillary.com.

"Absentee and early voting are votes in the bank. The more votes we can get in the bank before Election Day, the better off we are," said spokeswoman Ana Cruz. Supporters of Barack Obama have a similar site tht pushes Florida's early voting: my.barackobama.com.

Surely not all those absentee ballots have come back. They were mailed around Christmas, when most people are distracted by family, not national, politics. Some voters also may be holding onto them to see which candidates survived the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina.

"They're paying attention to what's happened in other states," Johnson said, "but what that impact is is anybody's guess because there's no clear momentum for any one candidate."

Clinton's win in New Hampshire might give her supporters in Florida an incentive to mail in their ballots. It "could confirm for early voters that 'This is the choice we would want,'" said Democratic strategist David Beattie.

The former first lady polled very well among women voters in New Hampshire, a good sign for her among Democratic early voters in Florida. Women who request absentee ballots are more likely to return those votes early than men who vote absentee, Beattie said.

The state's Democratic party launched a campaign this year to boost their early turnout. Their "createCHANGE'08" aims to sign up absentee voters not just for the primary, but for all elections through 2010.

In an e-mail to supporters earlier this month, the chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party touted absentee voting's convenience for both voters and candidates.

"Absentee ballots will save valuable time and money in the final weeks of the campaign and help busy people to remember to cast their ballots," Karen Thurman wrote.

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