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Florida Battle Mirrors Wider Conflict

Campaign: Clinton struggles to hold ground he thought he'd won in GOP stonghold. Suburban corridor is key.


TAMPA, Fla. — Somewhere inside the swaying crowd at St. Paul AME Church here Sunday morning, President Clinton was shaking another hand, lifting another baby into his arms, embracing another elegant elderly woman in her Sunday best, while the two choirs on the stage behind him poured out exuberant torrents of sound that crashed over the room like waves on a rock.

"I know I'm preaching to the choir today," Clinton had said a few minutes earlier, as he stood in the pulpit of this predominantly black church in quiet downtown Tampa, "but in the next few days, we need the choir to preach."

The struggle for Florida encapsulates the frenzied battle between the two principal combatants in the campaign's final hours. Here, as in many ordinarily Republican states, Clinton is struggling to hold ground he thought he had seized earlier in the fall.

As a result, this state finds itself in an unaccustomed position: under siege from presidential candidates scouring for every last vote. Just three days before Clinton arrived, GOP rival Bob Dole was here in Tampa; in between, Vice President Al Gore and Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, have made stops at the other end of the populous corridor that runs east from here through Orlando along Interstate 4.

"Everybody from both sides is here," said state GOP Chairman Tom Slade, "and that probably tells you all you need to know about where the polls are."

The fact that Clinton still has within his grasp a state no Democrat has carried in 20 years testifies to the president's continuing advantage in the race to accumulate 270 electoral votes. This is a state that Clinton would like to win, but that Dole must win.

On the other hand, the apparent tightening of the race here underscores the last-minute sag in Clinton's support in Republican-leaning states, particularly in the South and Mountain West, where the president seemed poised for breakthroughs only days ago.

This trend does not yet appear strong enough to endanger the likelihood of Clinton winning a second term; indeed, as the president's support droops amid questions about Democratic National Committee fund-raising, the overall movement appears more toward Reform Party candidate Ross Perot than toward Dole, who still remains mired below 40% in most surveys. But during the last week, Dole's position has measurably strengthened in conservative states, such as Virginia, Georgia and Kentucky, that Republicans dominated in the quarter-century before Clinton's 1992 victory.

Few states were more dependably Republican over that time than Florida. From 1968 through 1988, only Jimmy Carter in 1976 carried the state for the Democrats; Democratic presidential candidates averaged a meager 37% of the vote here in those six elections. In 1992, Clinton came within 100,000 votes of swiping the state from George Bush, but only because Perot drove down Bush's vote so badly: Clinton still carried only 39% of the vote here four years ago.

The state was so reliably Republican that neither side typically mounted more than a perfunctory campaign here; Tre Evers, an Orlando-based GOP consultant, says he can't remember ever seeing presidential ads in Florida before this year. Even four years ago, Clinton didn't invest any money in the state.

This year, the president has made a much more determined push.

Surveys have shown him leading Dole here virtually all year, though by only four points in the latest Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Florida Poll.

It is likely to be "razor thin," as Bob Buckhorn, a Tampa City Council member who is directing the Democratic get-out-the-vote drive here, puts it--an assessment Republicans share.

In a year when political operatives in both parties here detect relatively modest enthusiasm for either candidate, Clinton's gains compared to 1992 appear to be coming primarily from three groups.

The first is the elderly, who make up a larger share of the vote here than almost anywhere else. Beginning last fall, the DNC carpet-bombed the state with more than $3 million in ads, many of them accusing Dole of conspiring with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to undermine Medicare.

GOP analysts blame most of their problems in Florida on that Democratic barrage--which Republicans deride as a "Mediscare" campaign. But Robert Joffee, director of the Mason-Dixon poll, says the GOP problems run deeper than that. In the latest Mason-Dixon survey, voters 65 and older give Clinton only a 48%-40% lead, not much more than his advantage overall.

Two other groups are also tilting more toward the Democrats. One is Latinos--including Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans--who may be recoiling from the harder-edged GOP positions on immigration and the use of English as the official language.

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