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Obama bets big on Florida turnout

The campaign thinks he can win if he can transform Democratic voter registration gains into actual votes.

October 17, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Barack Obama has sent five of his most senior operatives to Florida -- two of them to focus on the single county that includes Miami -- for the duration of the presidential campaign, in a newly sharpened strategy to win the election by driving Democratic voter turnout in the Republican-dominated state.

The big bet on Florida and Miami-Dade County, Obama aides say, is based on the campaign's belief that it has secured enough supporters to win the state and must now ensure that those supporters get to the polls -- in contrast to states such as Ohio, where the campaign believes victory depends on persuading more voters to support Obama.

On Thursday, Miami-Dade County disclosed that Democrats had added more than 94,000 new voters to the rolls since January, compared with about 21,000 new Republicans. Democrats' gain came partly from the Obama campaign's major voter registration efforts here. The party has also made large gains statewide, though final numbers are not yet known.

Now the Obama campaign believes that it can win Florida -- and, therefore, a majority in the Electoral College -- by turning these voter registration gains into actual votes. In addition, the campaign has identified more than half a million African Americans and hundreds of thousands of young people statewide who were already registered but did not vote four years ago. That year, President Bush undertook a major GOP voter-targeting effort and secured a victory margin of about 380,000 votes.

"The demographics of Florida have lined up better for us" than in some other battleground states, said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, referring to the campaign's outreach to African Americans, who are numerous in Miami-Dade County. "Ohio is more about persuasion. Here it's more about turnout."

In addition to Hildebrand, who is now focusing almost entirely on Miami-Dade County, the officials sent to Florida include the Obama campaign's liaison to the national Democratic Party and its senior or No. 2 outreach directors for African Americans, Jews and religious leaders.

Four of the officials are working out of a third-floor suite in a Miami Beach office building, and one, national party liaison Paul Tewes, has joined the campaign's state headquarters team in Tampa.

The Obama staffers are arriving in Florida just as both parties are placing final markers on the electoral map, signaling where the last battles for voters will take place before election day. The Republican National Committee, for example, decided this week to stop its presidential campaign advertising in Wisconsin and Maine to concentrate on holding more traditionally Republican states.

Some Florida Republicans have been grumbling in recent weeks that John McCain's campaign has not kept pace with advertising and grass-roots activities in the state, which has been dominated for more than a decade by the GOP in presidential and state-level races.

Obama aides have said they planned to spend $39 million to win Florida. But some Republicans think the total expenditure will far exceed that amount, given the countless Obama ads they see on television, the Obama spots that play even on country music stations -- which Republicans tend to target -- and the campaign's paid staff of nearly 400.

"Obviously, we're not used to being outspent," said Al Cardenas, the state's former GOP chairman and an advisor to the McCain campaign. "This is new. Now we're getting a sense for how the other side has felt."

Cardenas said the race in Florida was far from over. He said McCain remains popular among Cuban Americans, who are traditionally Republican, and high-profile supporters such as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) might help boost support among Jews.

Cardenas also cited the McCain campaign's appeal to conservative voters in northern Florida, home to many military service members and veterans, and he said the GOP continues to enjoy a robust get-out-the-vote network.

Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, was such a big draw earlier this month that the campaign moved a Fort Myers event to a larger venue. In Jacksonville, a state newspaper reported, cars lined up for as long as three blocks after the campaign set up a drive-through system for obtaining rally tickets.

Still, Cardenas said, the true strength of the Obama campaign is an open question. Can the Democrats, who have never before mounted a sophisticated ground game in Florida, build enough of a cushion in vote-rich southern counties such as Miami-Dade to offset Republican strongholds in the conservative Panhandle?

"We're not going to win in Dade," Cardenas said. "The question is whether we lose it by 25,000 or 75,000. That's the key to winning the state."

McCain will make two appearances in the state today, including a Miami event aimed at Cuban Americans and other Latinos.

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