Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks in St. Petersburg… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
APOPKA, Fla. — Mitt Romney's three-day Florida campaign swing this weekend underscored the state's importance to his heightened presidential hopes and provided a road map, at times literally, to his strategy for winning it.
With new polls showing a tightening in the presidential contest after his strong performance in the first debate, Romney rallied supporters Friday night in St. Petersburg and Saturday in Apopka, near Orlando. Both sites are along the midstate Interstate-4 corridor, where Romney must score well among Republicans and independents to win the state's 29 electoral votes in November. On Sunday, he was to appear in Port St. Lucie to the southeast.
Florida is key to Romney's hopes because, barring a collapse by President Obama in swing states where he now holds a narrow lead in polls, the Republican nominee has no path to the White House without it.
He has held 19 events in Florida since the Republican convention in Tampa and has sent his running mate, Paul D. Ryan, into the state as well, often accompanied by Ryan's mother, a part-time Florida resident.
Both campaigns have been appealing to seniors, who are among the highest-propensity voters here. During a visit to Jacksonville during the summer, Obama argued that Romney's vow to repeal the Democrats' new healthcare law would cause 200,000 Floridians to pay more for prescription drugs, and he accused Romney of trying to turn Medicare into a voucher program.
"That voucher isn't worth enough to buy health insurance on the market. You're out of luck. You're on your own," Obama said in Jacksonville.
Romney accuses Obama of distorting his plan, noting that it would affect only those under 55, and that future seniors could choose traditional Medicare, though he has not been specific about their level of benefits.
The former Massachusetts governor has focused on a $716-billion cut from Medicare to help pay for the new healthcare law. Though Romney has charged that it would scale back benefits for retirees, the savings would come from reductions in payments to insurance companies and hospitals. Those providers agreed to the cuts because the law would reduce the number of uninsured patients in their care.
"The president has made it clear that he's going to go ahead with $716 billion in cuts to Medicare. And by the way, that's $44 billion of cuts right here in Florida," Romney said in Apopka on Saturday. "I'll put that money back."
The president's hopes of winning the state have been boosted by Florida's growing population of Latinos, who support him overwhelmingly. Romney has tried to chip away at that advantage by courting conservative Cuban American voters — he visited a well-known Cuban restaurant in Tampa on Friday night — as well as a huge population of Puerto Rican voters along the I-4 corridor. Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuño and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have cut ads for Romney in Spanish and English that have aired in Florida.
Romney advisors say that flush Republican resources have allowed them to tailor their messages to individual audiences. Data-mining efforts have focused on turning out those who are enthusiastic about Romney but have voted irregularly in the past.
They have used those tools to court Jewish voters by highlighting Romney's emphasis on the U.S.-Israel relationship. They have appealed to Catholic voters by focusing on his opposition to abortion. And his campaign also has sought to peel away younger voters, another Obama constituency.
Romney political director Rich Beeson said the presidential campaign had already contacted 3.5 million more voters nationally than it had by this time in 2008. The latest wave of calls — being made during the campaign's "super Saturday" event at call centers around the country — pressed supporters to request absentee ballots.
Romney's Florida weekend also been marked by a shift in his emphasis. In a effort to show a more personal side, Romney spoke in public for first time about his work as Mormon church leader and told other stories about "the greatness of the human spirit in my fellow Americans."
Before more than 5,000 people at a twilight rally Friday, he told the story of his work as Brother Romney helping a 14-year-old boy with leukemia who asked Romney to explain "what's next" and draft a will. He also shared a story about a friend who became quadriplegic after an accident.
The man, a friend from graduate school named Billy Hulse, came to a recent rally in Atlanta, Romney said: "His wife was there, and he can't move of course his arms and his legs, and he can barely speak, and they brought him forward.... I reached down and I put my hand on Billy's shoulder and I whispered into his ear, and I said 'Billy, God bless you, I love you.' And he whispered right back to me — and I couldn't quite hear what he said. He tried to speak loud enough for me to hear. He died the next day."
Romney also spoke of his recent encounter with the wife of a U.S. military sharpshooter who was killed in Afghanistan. At the sharpshooter's funeral, Romney said, the soldier's wife was asked what she thought of "some misguided people" who were at the funeral protesting the war.
"This is the quote," Romney said, reading from his notes at the podium. "She said this: 'Chris died for them to be able to protest. Chris died for them to be able to protest.' This is quite a nation we live in, with some extraordinary people."
Romney's approach seemed intended to pull voter impressions of him into more positive territory. Obama remains more personally popular than Romney, and his campaign has criticized the Republican's budget plan as one that would require dramatic cuts in services for people like those he discussed — the disabled, the ill and veterans.