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Something for all at Florida's waist

January 26, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

LAKELAND, FLA. — Linda Ivell is an ardent supporter of President Bush, leads the state Republican women's club and has met all of the major GOP presidential candidates. Yet the effervescent 53-year-old real estate agent, who lives in this former citrus and phosphate mining hub in central Florida, simply can't make up her mind about whom to vote for Tuesday in Florida's crucial presidential primary.

"I honestly don't know," said Ivell, who is torn by the candidates' appeals as conservatives on economic, national security and social issues.

"The thing I want most," she said, "is someone who will speak the truth."

Undecided Republicans like Ivell living near Interstate 4, the east-west corridor that divides the Sunshine State, could tip the scales Tuesday. And they are being heavily wooed by the leading candidates.

Compared with other parts of the state, GOP voters in the cities and suburbs along the I-4, a 132-mile stretch of highway that links Daytona Beach and Tampa, are more ideologically diverse and less predictable. They are a hodgepodge of the factions -- business people, retirees from the Northeast and the Midwest, military veterans and social conservatives -- that President Reagan united under the conservative banner in the 1980s.

"What you've got in central Florida are all the elements of the Republican Party, the Republican coalition," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The diversity is fueled by the region's dynamic demographics, constantly evolving because of explosive growth in recent years. It's the fastest-growing part of the state and quickly diversifying with an influx of Latinos. The population of Orange County, the home of Orlando, has more than doubled over the last 20 years and is now slightly more than 1 million.

State Sen. Daniel Webster, a state chairman for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign who represents western Orange and neighboring Seminole and Osceola counties, said each candidate's message resonated with a segment of the area's GOP voters. "There is an ability for each one of the candidates to garner significant support here," he said.

In particular, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani are concentrating precious time and resources mining for votes. McCain, for example, is courting veterans and seniors. The Arizona senator held a Friday round-table in Tampa, planned to speak Sunday at the Villages retirement community and will spend Monday in Orlando and Tampa.

Central Florida accounts for "almost half the primary vote in the whole state, so it's ordinarily considered the battleground," said McCain strategist Charles Black. "That's where all the potential undecided voters are."

"It's a key area for everyone," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "There are many counties there that have a growing population and face economic uncertainty and economic challenges, and that is an area where we focus from a strategic standpoint of getting out the vote."

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was warmly greeted at a Wednesday stop at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Alluding to the nation's economic problems, Romney said his business experience made him the right leader for the times.

It's a theme that resonates with voters like Cheryl Bartolomeo, a Tampa resident who works at the cancer center and who grew up in Boston. "I like his business approach to running the country," said Bartolomeo, 35, who plans to vote for Romney. "He seems to be a straight shooter."

Colleague Janean Reschlein, 56, who works in security, was wavering between Romney and former New York Mayor Giuliani when she walked into the event. After Romney's speech, the Tampa resident said she was impressed but remained undecided.

"I like the way he talks about personal responsibility. I think that's what we need to do as a country and stop looking to government to solve all of our problems," she said. "But I'm still not sure. It will come down to the voting booth."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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