MIAMI — Last time around, it was a mere 537 votes -- and the courts -- that determined which presidential candidate won Florida. This year, analysts say, the victor is likely to be decided by a large and growing population of independent voters, whose behavior on election day is almost impossible to predict.
"The 2004 election will be enormously competitive," said David Niven, professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "Both parties are working the state, and it will come down to a few percentage points."
Hardly by chance, President Bush today travels to Orlando for his first full-fledged political rally -- an event where he will focus on trolling for votes, rather than campaign dollars. His appearance is tacit recognition of the key role Florida and its 27 electoral votes are expected to play in his quest for reelection.
Bush's presumed Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, has already visited Florida many times; he made the state his first stop after effectively locking up his party's nomination earlier this month.
Between now and election day, the incumbent and his opponent are likely to spend so much time campaigning in Florida that "they are going to pick up suntans," said Ross Baker, a political analyst at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The final arbiter of the candidates' chances may be what's known in Florida's political shorthand as NPAs -- for "no party affiliation." These swelling numbers of residents without formal Republican or Democratic ties now account for more than 17% of Florida's voters.
The desire to figure out who they'll back is why political consultants often earn millions of dollars, said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"Advertisements and what they see on the news tends to decide how they vote," she added. "Their votes tend to flip back and forth, and they make up their minds relatively late in the game."
Each party plans aggressive efforts to court these voters. But state Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox said, "We don't know how that voting bloc is going to perform, or even whether it's going to perform at all."
A poll earlier this month gave Kerry the lead in the state over Bush, 49% to 43%. The Miami Herald-St. Petersburg Times survey found that Floridians were increasingly critical of Bush for his handling of the economy and the war in Iraq.
According to the poll, a majority of Florida voters now believe the country under Bush is "moving in the wrong direction," a dramatic change from two years ago, when 7 in 10 of those surveyed approved of his performance in the White House.
Experts, though, caution against vesting the recent poll with too much significance.
They note that while registered Democrats still narrowly outnumber Republicans in the state, the GOP has narrowed the gap since 2000. The Republicans slightly increased their share of registered voters to almost 39%. Democrats account for 42% of the registered voters, a drop of more than 1 percentage point since 2000.
Also, the state has gained more than 200,000 jobs since Bush took office.
"At this moment, Bush has the advantage," said Niven, echoing the conclusion of a majority of the analysts interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. "The president is likely to eke out a victory."
State Democrats suffered a setback in 2002, when Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, turned what was expected to be a tough fight for reelection into a rout. But since then, the Democrats have become better-organized and installed stronger leadership, said James Witt, former professor of government at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
He added that the party should benefit from lingering resentment among partisans who still disputed the outcome of the 2000 recount,
"Democrats are still talking about the 2000 elections: That's yesterday's newspaper for them," he said.
Overall, Florida has added close to 500,000 voters to its registration rolls since the 2000 election, a testament to the state's attraction for Americans seeking sunshine and jobs. Half of the increase has occurred in the so-called I-4 corridor, the strip of Central Florida on either side of the interstate highway linking Daytona Beach on the Atlantic Coast to Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
Orlando and surrounding Orange County, where the Bush campaign and Florida Republicans hope to turn out 12,000 supporters for today's noontime rally, is smack in the corridor's heart.
"I-4 is where the swing voters are, and Orange County is right in the middle of it," said Richard T. Crotty, the Republican chief executive of Orange County. For the 2004 election, Crotty said, "it's ground zero."
Florida Republicans have been working diligently to register new voters and engineer a record turnout on Nov. 2. In addition to paid field staff scattered throughout the state, the campaign has signed up about 17,000 volunteers.