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Obama, Romney aim for swing vote in final debate in Florida

Foreign policy is the topic of the final presidential debate, but winning undecided voters will be the goal for Obama and Romney.

October 22, 2012|By Paul West and Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Stand-ins for President Obama and Mitt Romney sit at a debate table at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., at a reshearsal for Monday night's third and final presidential debate.
Stand-ins for President Obama and Mitt Romney sit at a debate table at Lynn… (Joe Raedle, Getty Images )

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Foreign policy may be the topic, but undecided voters will be the targets when Mitt Romney and President Obama hold their third and final debate Monday night.

Mobilizing supporters is a priority for both men. It is especially vital for Obama, whose backers are less likely to vote than Romney's, polls indicate. But with the latest opinion surveys showing the race dead even, it is increasingly likely that the next president will be chosen by a relatively tiny group: swing-state voters who have yet to commit firmly to either candidate.

Florida, where the candidates will meet on the Lynn University campus not far from the turquoise Atlantic surf, is a prime example of the down-to-the-wire 2012 fight. Here, as elsewhere, debate season has shifted the presidential contest in Romney's direction, putting even more pressure on the candidates in their final joint appearance.

"The debate's big, and it's particularly big for Floridians because it's in our state," said Susie Wiles, a Jacksonville-based strategist who ran Republican Rick Scott's successful 2010 campaign for governor.

"We have a lot of communities here that care about foreign policy, especially in South Florida, whether it's the Jewish community, the Cuban community, the Haitian community or the Hispanic community across the state," said Dan Gelber, a former state senator from Miami Beach who is working with the Obama campaign. "This debate will be a big one."

With just two weeks left until the election, both campaigns are wooing many of the same voters: non-Cuban Latinos in central Florida, Jews in South Florida and seniors and suburban women almost everywhere. Romney rallied supporters in Daytona Beach on Friday night, and Obama plans stops in Delray Beach and Tampa this week. Their running mates have also blitzed the state recently.

Republicans remain worried that Obama's extensive get-out-the-vote operation could carry him, and Democrats are concerned that heightened enthusiasm for Romney could give him an edge. As many as 1 in 10 Florida voters may be up for grabs, and Fernando Valladrez is among them.

"I have to watch the debate Monday night to see," said the 32-year-old father of two, who works at Walt Disney World and lives in Davenport, along central Florida's hotly contested Interstate 4 corridor.

Valladrez voted for Obama in 2008 but says he agrees with Romney on social issues, such as abortion and whether Catholic hospitals should pay for employee insurance coverage for contraceptives, though he doesn't like Romney's position on immigration.

"I think I might go for Romney," Valladrez said. "Four years of Obama have not done anything."

Adam Garcia, 40, had been leaning toward Obama, but the first two debates helped push him toward the Republican challenger, even though the last four years have been good for him. Garcia bought a house in Celebration and works at Southwest Airlines.

"I knew what Obama could bring to the table. I didn't know what Romney could bring to the table," he said, adding that he could change his mind again. "If Obama does well on Monday, I'm in big trouble. I won't know who to support."

Anecdotal evidence of growing support for Romney among Latinos in central Florida is reinforced by recent public polling. But Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political science professor who surveys Latino opinion, contends that his independent surveys show the Latino vote continuing to trend toward Obama, in Florida and elsewhere.

Latinos, roughly 17% of the Florida electorate, may be slower to make a final choice, one reason there may be even more undecided voters here than in other swing states. "Latinos do demonstrate a surge in enthusiasm in the last two weeks" before an election, Barreto said.

Both campaigns are inundating the radio airwaves with Spanish-language advertising, but they're not convincing some voters.

"I wasted my vote last time," said Betty Varala, 41, a Puerto Rican American who supported Obama in 2008. Her husband, who worked in construction, was last employed two years ago and the couple lost their house.

Though she still has a job, in hotel management, Varala is disgusted with politicians. "They promise and promise but don't do anything," she said. This year, she's not going to vote.

But other Latinos, while not as enthusiastic as last time, are still motivated to vote. They include Miguel Lopez, 40, and Mario Perez, 53, both mental health professionals sitting down for dinner at Puerto Rico's Cafe, a restaurant in Kissimmee. They were already supporting Obama when they were forwarded a video of Romney joking about needing to be Latino to win the race, which motivated them to support the president even more.

Another group both sides are pursuing: Jewish voters, who make up about 4% of the statewide electorate. No one expects Romney to carry the Jewish vote, but if he can cut into Obama's margins it could make a big difference in a tight Florida race.

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