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November 5, 2012

Florida remains a tough sell for Obama, Romney

TAMPA, Fla. — To the last minute, Florida is proving to be an expensive and frustrating state for President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney alike, seemingly resistant to arguments that play well in Ohio, Colorado and other states.

For all the talk of Florida leaning Republican, both nominees are making stops here in the campaign’s final 40 hours, a testament to its uncertainty. Their campaigns and allies have poured $130 million into Florida TV ads.

Florida is a tough sell for Obama’s national message of steady economic recovery, because its unemployment and foreclosure rates remain above the national average. The auto industry bailout ads airing in Ohio would make little sense here.

And Obama’s standard remarks to Hispanics don’t resonate so well in Florida because its two largest Hispanic groups -- Cubans and Puerto Ricans -- are exempt from immigration laws that Mexican-Americans and others intensely follow.

These factors played into Obama’s decision to make his strongest battleground stand in Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes to Florida’s 29. And they prompted Republicans to hope Romney would lock up Florida early.

But a well-organized Democratic ground game, and a population that’s increasingly non-white, have given Obama hope of winning Florida narrowly and all but assuring his re-election.

“I think it’s too close to call,” said Jerrold Kronenfeld, 68, an Obama volunteer who attended Friday’s rally by former President Bill Clinton in Palm Bay, Fla.

Kronenfeld wore a “Jews for Obama” button, and he said it was frustrating to see Romney pursue Jewish votes by portraying Obama as unfriendly to Israel.

The sometimes sharp exchanges over Israel are just one example of campaign bitterness that has spilled over in this sprawling state, the biggest of the toss-up prizes.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled legislature curtailed early voting this year and took other steps that Democrats say were designed to suppress voting in heavily Democratic areas.

After people waited for hours to vote in south Florida on Saturday, the last day of early voting, the state Democratic Party filed a federal lawsuit seeking more voting time Sunday. Local officials allowed it on a limited basis. But some would-be voters gave up when facing six-hour waits Saturday, poll watchers said, and similar problems could arise Tuesday.

If Obama loses Florida by a hair, partisan recriminations seem inevitable.

Florida’s unemployment rate -- 8.7 percent, compared to the nation’s 7.9 percent -- would seem to help Romney’s economic argument against Obama.

“Jobs, the economy, that’s it,” said Tammy Celeste, chairwoman of the Romney campaign in Osceola County, explaining why independents and some Democrats walk into the Kissimmee office to make phone calls for the GOP nominee.

And yet Romney has been forced to spend precious time and money in Florida from the very start. He campaigned Wednesday in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. He will be in in Sanford, north of Orlando, Monday morning. First lady Michelle Obama will be in Orlando a few hours later.

Obama adviser David Plouffe taunted the former Massachusetts governor Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

“A few weeks ago, Governor Romney’s campaign was saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to win Florida, we’re going to win Virginia,”’ Plouffe said. “On Monday, the day before the election, Governor Romney is going to Florida and Virginia. Why? Because he’s at great risk of losing those states.”

Obama made his last Florida campaign stop Sunday afternoon, before about 23,000 people south of Fort Lauderdale. As usual, he accused Romney of having said Clinton’s tax and spending policies would hurt the economy.

“Turns out his math then was just as bad as it is now,” Obama said.

Both parties take comfort in selected details about Florida’s early voting and absentee balloting. Democrats have an advantage, but Republicans say it is smaller than it was in 2008.

While Democratic activists delight in Romney’s struggles, even some people who go to pro-Obama events aren’t confident the president will carry the state.

“I think it’s probably going to go for Romney,” said Greg Harman, 46, who attended the Clinton rally in Palm Bay. He said he voted for Obama in 2008. But is disappointed that the president hasn’t done more to protect Americans from domestic surveillance.

This year, Harman said, “I’m on the fence.”

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