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UNEASY VOTERS: The changing exurbs

Airing new views in America's cul-de-sacs

Many struggling GOP families outside U.S. cities are thinking of switching parties.

August 12, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WESLEY CHAPEL, FLA. — Cheap mortgages and cheap gas built this sprawling landscape of tan and gray stucco homes, iron gates and golf course communities. And the people who flocked here over the last decade -- upwardly mobile young families in pursuit of lower taxes and wholesome neighborhoods -- emerged as a Republican voting bloc crucial to President Bush's 2004 reelection.

But listen to Anna Rodriguez and her neighbors who gather nightly on lawn chairs to unwind, and a change comes into focus that could shift the national political landscape in 2008 and beyond.

The boom that turned swamps and pastures into a suburban mecca has stopped dead. Now the talk is about plummeting home values, rising food costs, and gas prices that make the once-painless half-hour commute to Tampa a financial strain. It's enough to give some here the sense that maybe, this time around, the Republicans do not deserve their votes.

"This is the first election I ever actually looked at someone else other than the Republican candidate," said Rodriguez, 33, who is studying to be a teacher and is a fixture at the lawn chair hobnob here on Greely Court, a quiet cul-de-sac in a Pasco County subdivision called Wrencrest.

"I've had enough with the Republican economics," she added, as her husband, Danny, who had just driven from his banking job in Tampa, piped in: "No more Bush."

The Rodriguezes were sitting in a neighbor's driveway with several other regulars as the kids played in the street. From their chairs, the parents could see evidence of changing times: home-for-sale signs in both directions, with overgrown lawns marking the foreclosures.

Dori Merkle, 50, who works as a special education instructor in the local schools, said her collapsing home value was pushing her to consider voting Democratic for the first time in her life. Another neighbor, Cheryl Bernales, a 29-year-old economics teacher who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, said that she could face a pay cut "because the economy's so bad," and that she believes Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama "isn't so entrenched in the system."

In this massive housing complex on the fringes of the Tampa Bay area, one of dozens in Pasco County that popped up over the last 10 years, the sour economy appears to be turning many GOP-friendly voters into undecideds or even potential switchers.

These voters represent a jump ball -- a potentially decisive constituency in several states that could be snared by either candidate.

But for Republican candidate John McCain, the danger signs are found beyond Greely Court. Pasco County is only one of the politically potent communities known as exurbs, the outer suburbs of cities, that could provide the margin of victory for the GOP -- or not.

Four years ago, exurbs in Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado were especially important to Bush's reelection. Targeted by Karl Rove, the architect of Bush's victory, they were full of families escaping crowded schools and other downsides of city and suburban life. They were more consumed with the demands of everyday life than politics, but were open to the Republican messages of family values and low taxes. To Rove, these communities were an important piece of his plan to build a lasting GOP majority. And Bush made a strong stand, winning 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties.

McCain, a senator from Arizona, is trying to do the same in a far different climate as exurbanites feel increasingly pinched by the rising costs of what not long ago seemed the ideal lifestyle.

In interviews across Pasco County, many voters said they liked McCain's support for expanded offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico -- a concrete sign that he has a plan to deal with their most pressing concerns. Public surveys and GOP polls show broad support for drilling, even in this coastal county. That helps explain why McCain made it a centerpiece of his campaign, and why Obama used a Florida appearance to drop his staunch opposition.


Pivotal places

But many also worry that McCain, known for his war credentials, does not relate to the troubles facing communities so vulnerable to fluctuations in gas prices and housing values -- communities that happen to be in some of the election's most pivotal states.

The pain is especially acute in hotly contested Nevada and Florida, which are home to many such communities and are among the nation's hardest-hit real estate markets.

In eastern Pasco County, where much of the recent growth had occurred, the median price of a single-family home has dropped by nearly one-quarter over the last two years. Since Bush was reelected in 2004, according to a Times analysis, the average cost of gas to drive both ways of the 26-mile commute between the Wrencrest subdivision and downtown Tampa in a typical passenger car has more than doubled, from $4.36 to $9.22.

Similar trends can be seen in the exurban counties around Denver, Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Detroit, and in the Virginia exurbs near Washington, D.C.

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