Enthusiasm factor is big as Democrats convene starting Tuesday


President Barack Obama walks across the tarmac to greet guest upon his arrival on Air Force One, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Published: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 5:16 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - With Mitt Romney accepting his party's nomination in Tampa, it's now President Barack Obama's turn to make his case for re-election at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week.

And much of that message will be aimed directly at Florida - the largest battleground state in the November presidential election with 29 electoral votes at stake.

Floridians played a prominent role at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, with Jeb Bush - the state's most popular Republican - and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, delivering key speeches on the convention's final day.

GOP strategists hope the Tampa convention provides momentum for Romney's campaign in a major swing state.

In 2008, Obama had the enthusiasm edge in Florida - reflected in voter registration and turnout - and carried the state by 3 percentage points.

Now Obama will use his party's three-day convention, which begins Tuesday, to try to duplicate his prior success.

But a sluggish economy and a well-funded attack from the Republicans - who assert the president has failed to live up to his promises - have cast doubt on whether Democrats will be as passionately engaged with the presidential race.

Florida Republicans have been touting the turnout and registration figures from the state's Aug. 14 primary, when the GOP had the edge.

Florida Democrats still outnumber Republicans, 4.58 million voters to 4.1 million, but they have not yet reached the 4.9 million 2008 registration peak. Voter registration continues through early October.

"The enthusiasm factor is going to be critical," said former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I always worry when I see more Republicans showing up in their primary than Democrats. I think our biggest problem always is showing up."

Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager for Obama, said based on the campaign's volunteers, phone calls and voter-registration efforts, the Democrats are on pace to duplicate their 2008 effort in Florida.

"We are above where we were in 2008 in terms of registration," she said.

Republicans are more skeptical that the Obama campaign will have the same advantage as in the last election.

"You see the people but it's nothing like it was four years ago," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, who said he saw record numbers of absentee ballots and early voting his primary race in August. "They are not as energized the way the Republicans are and that may make the difference if we can pull it off. But it's going to be tough."

Gelber said the GOP's conservative wing, including the Tea Party members, is engaged in the election. But he said their dominance in the party has left more moderate Republicans adrift, giving the Democrats a chance to appeal to them in what could be another razor-thin Florida election.

"They are a real opportunity for us," Gelber said.

One way the Democrat may reach some of those voters is through the recent endorsement of Obama by former Gov. Charlie Crist, who will be a speaker at the DNC this week.

Crist, a former Republican who is now an independent, said his former party has "pitched" too far "to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students."

Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from South Florida, said Crist's message of moderation will resonate with Florida voters.

"He is someone who as a Republican governor was an example of how you could reach across the aisle and not engage in my-way-or-the-highway politics," Wasserman Schultz said. "I think that's probably the vision that Gov. Crist will lay out at the convention. And it's an important message for independent voters who want to make sure that we just work together."

Air war and ground game

Like the nation, voters in Florida are highly polarized. Most have decided who they are voting for and they're not budging.

A mid-August poll from Quinnipiac University showed only 5 percent of Florida's likely voters were undecided.

Both the Democrats and Republicans have spent millions of dollars - and will spend millions more - trying to persuade that small group of voters who could decide the presidential race.

In the vast geographic sprawl of Florida, the main way to reach the most voters effectively is through television advertising in the state's 10 media markets - an expensive and daunting task.

Obama had the money and advertising advantage in Florida in 2008.

This year, Romney, aided by his own impressive fund-raising as well as a big boost from the so-called "super PACs," should have the edge in the "air war" in the final two months of the campaign in Florida.

Obama's campaign expects to be outspent in Florida.

"Money is not going to buy this election," said Cutter, the Obama adviser. "We'll have the resources we need to get out the vote and communicate the president's position."

Cutter said Obama expects to have an advantage in Florida in campaign workers, volunteers and other support groups - the "ground game" - aimed at registering voters and then getting them to the polls. She said the structure has been in place since before the successful 2008 campaign.

"Our organization here never went away. It's five years in the making," Cutter said. "I think we're in good shape."

Democrats will use Romney's support from the corporate-funded super PACs as a rhetorical weapon.

The Republicans are "allowing a handful of billionaires to try to buy the White House," Wasserman Schultz said.

"We're going to get outspent," she said. "We have to make sure that we continue our grassroots fundraising and our grassroots outreach so that we don't get drowned in corporate super PAC money."

Medicare

Florida's presidential race will also be a political testing ground for how voters feel about the future of Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly.

Democrats were gleeful that Romney tapped U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate since Ryan is the author of a House budget plan that would dramatically change Medicare for Americans under the age of 55.

Ryan's proposal would "voucherize" and "privatize" the current guaranteed federal health care plan, giving seniors a fixed amount of money that they would have to use to buy their insurance, the Democrats say. They also point to a Congressional Budget Office analysis that showed it could cost seniors an average $6,400 a year.

Romney's campaign has countered with accusing Obama of "raiding" $716 billion from the Medicare program in paymet cuts to service providers under the federal Affordable Care Act, which Romney has vowed to repeal.

The back-and-forth arguments could muddle the issue in the senior-laden Florida electorate, although traditionally accusing opponents of trying to undermine Medicare has been an effective weapon in Florida politics.

Obama's campaign believes it will have an advantage on the issue in Florida.

Cutter said there is "fear across this country" about what the Republicans would do with Medicare.

"Seniors don't want to end the guarantee of Medicare and that's what Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would do - end of story," Cutter said.

Voting blocs

As a microcosm of the nation, Florida also holds the key voting blocs that could decide the presidential race.

At the DNC in Charlotte, the Democrats will sharpen their message that the party is more appealing to Hispanics, women and other constituencies.

Republicans used their Tampa convention to showcase their Hispanic and women leaders, including Sen. Rubio and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Polling shows Obama has an advantage among those groups, aided in part by Republican campaign rhetoric on tough-immigration laws and support from GOP social conservatives who want to see more restrictions on abortion.

Florida will also be a battleground for another critical constituency - Jewish voters.

Romney has made a direct appeal to those voters, including taking a trip earlier this summer to Israel. Republicans have accused Obama of pursuing policies that could be detrimental to that nation.

Wasserman Schultz, who has represented a large bloc of Jewish voters for years as a state lawmaker and now a congresswoman in South Florida, dismissed the assertion that those voters will be flocking to the GOP this year.

"They say that every election and every election they come up short," Wasserman Schultz said.

Democrats say Romney has played up his support for Israel, while underplaying his support for issues that might turn off Jewish voters, including his positions on women's issues, public education and gay marriage.

"The natural home for Jewish voters is the Democratic Party," Wasserman Schultz said. "The Republicans are wrong on every issue that matters to Jewish voters."

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