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Airing new views in America’s cul-de-sacs

Times Staff Writer

Cheap mortgages and cheap gas built this sprawling landscape of tan and gray stucco homes, iron gates and golf course communities. And the people who flocked here over the last decade -- upwardly mobile young families in pursuit of lower taxes and wholesome neighborhoods -- emerged as a Republican voting bloc crucial to President Bush’s 2004 reelection.

But listen to Anna Rodriguez and her neighbors who gather nightly on lawn chairs to unwind, and a change comes into focus that could shift the national political landscape in 2008 and beyond.

The boom that turned swamps and pastures into a suburban mecca has stopped dead. Now the talk is about plummeting home values, rising food costs, and gas prices that make the once-painless half-hour commute to Tampa a financial strain. It’s enough to give some here the sense that maybe, this time around, the Republicans do not deserve their votes.

“This is the first election I ever actually looked at someone else other than the Republican candidate,” said Rodriguez, 33, who is studying to be a teacher and is a fixture at the lawn chair hobnob here on Greely Court, a quiet cul-de-sac in a Pasco County subdivision called Wrencrest.

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“I’ve had enough with the Republican economics,” she added, as her husband, Danny, who had just driven from his banking job in Tampa, piped in: “No more Bush.”

The Rodriguezes were sitting in a neighbor’s driveway with several other regulars as the kids played in the street. From their chairs, the parents could see evidence of changing times: home-for-sale signs in both directions, with overgrown lawns marking the foreclosures.

Dori Merkle, 50, who works as a special education instructor in the local schools, said her collapsing home value was pushing her to consider voting Democratic for the first time in her life. Another neighbor, Cheryl Bernales, a 29-year-old economics teacher who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, said that she could face a pay cut “because the economy’s so bad,” and that she believes Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama “isn’t so entrenched in the system.”

In this massive housing complex on the fringes of the Tampa Bay area, one of dozens in Pasco County that popped up over the last 10 years, the sour economy appears to be turning many GOP-friendly voters into undecideds or even potential switchers.

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These voters represent a jump ball -- a potentially decisive constituency in several states that could be snared by either candidate.

But for Republican candidate John McCain, the danger signs are found beyond Greely Court. Pasco County is only one of the politically potent communities known as exurbs, the outer suburbs of cities, that could provide the margin of victory for the GOP -- or not.

Four years ago, exurbs in Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado were especially important to Bush’s reelection. Targeted by Karl Rove, the architect of Bush’s victory, they were full of families escaping crowded schools and other downsides of city and suburban life. They were more consumed with the demands of everyday life than politics, but were open to the Republican messages of family values and low taxes. To Rove, these communities were an important piece of his plan to build a lasting GOP majority. And Bush made a strong stand, winning 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties.

McCain, a senator from Arizona, is trying to do the same in a far different climate as exurbanites feel increasingly pinched by the rising costs of what not long ago seemed the ideal lifestyle.

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In interviews across Pasco County, many voters said they liked McCain’s support for expanded offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico -- a concrete sign that he has a plan to deal with their most pressing concerns. Public surveys and GOP polls show broad support for drilling, even in this coastal county. That helps explain why McCain made it a centerpiece of his campaign, and why Obama used a Florida appearance to drop his staunch opposition.

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Pivotal places

But many also worry that McCain, known for his war credentials, does not relate to the troubles facing communities so vulnerable to fluctuations in gas prices and housing values -- communities that happen to be in some of the election’s most pivotal states.

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The pain is especially acute in hotly contested Nevada and Florida, which are home to many such communities and are among the nation’s hardest-hit real estate markets.

In eastern Pasco County, where much of the recent growth had occurred, the median price of a single-family home has dropped by nearly one-quarter over the last two years. Since Bush was reelected in 2004, according to a Times analysis, the average cost of gas to drive both ways of the 26-mile commute between the Wrencrest subdivision and downtown Tampa in a typical passenger car has more than doubled, from $4.36 to $9.22.

Similar trends can be seen in the exurban counties around Denver, Las Vegas, Cincinnati and Detroit, and in the Virginia exurbs near Washington, D.C.

Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, says that many young families that moved to exurbia since 2000 racked up credit card debt and took on big mortgages. Now, he said, “if they’re upside down on their mortgage, they’ll be looking for someone to blame.”

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Democrats concede that Obama is unlikely to win a majority of voters in these traditionally conservative communities. But there are signs that 2008 offers a chance for Democrats to slice into the large margins that helped Bush win in 2004.

Already, Democrats have shown improvement at the ballot box. A study to be published soon by Brookings, a centrist think tank, found that Democrats increased their vote share in the exurban counties from 40% in the 2004 presidential race to 44% in the 2006 congressional elections, just after housing prices began to fall and gas prices began to climb.

Party strategists are studying the 2006 Senate races in three presidential battlegrounds -- Virginia, Missouri and Colorado -- to learn how themes focused on quality-of-life issues, such as traffic and infrastructure, helped Democrats improve and even win some exurban counties.

“They ran as pragmatists, offering to solve the problems of exurbanites,” said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. “If Obama runs a similar race or has similar appeal in those exurbs, that’s the road to the White House.”

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Republicans also appear to be losing ground in voter registration. The GOP still leads among the 283,000 registered voters in Pasco County, but local elections officials report that Democrats are gaining -- adding about 5,800 new voters and party-switchers since January, compared with about 4,200 new Republicans.

Obama’s top strategists have identified issues that they believe will sway a voting bloc that often includes parents of young children: job security, public schools and the cost of college, said deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand.

The Illinois senator’s recent revision of his long-held opposition to expanded oil drilling was also aimed at this group, as was his promise of an energy rebate.

But interviews with dozens of voters in Pasco County revealed that Obama, who has mostly relied on the lofty theme of transforming politics rather than fix-it solutions, has yet to win their trust. And analysts say moving them from swing voters to Democratic voters is a tall order for a liberal politician attempting to become the first black president.

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“History tells us that it takes quite a bit of economic pain to cause traditionally conservative voters to shift candidates,” said John D. Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s business school who has studied demographic patterns in suburbs.

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GOP strategies

Republican strategists are laying plans to convince anxious exurban voters that McCain would be far better for their car-centric lifestyles. Also, the campaign has deployed phone banks to survey exurban voters on issues that could lead to targeted appeals.

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“We would make a mistake if we would say these are just Republican base areas so let’s just turn out the vote,” said Mike DuHaime, a McCain strategist who advised the GOP four years ago on its exurban targeting. “If anything, these are swing areas where if we run the wrong kind of campaign we could lose those counties.”

Tom Grossman, the Republican chairman in Warren County, Ohio, near Cincinnati, said commuters in his area would be hearing frequently about Obama’s resistance to drilling.

The argument has already worked for some, including a few mothers who sat poolside at the recreation center in a central Pasco County subdivision called Lexington Oaks.

As their children splashed, the mothers talked about paying thousands to gas up their SUVs, canceling summer vacations, even considering going back to work. Nevertheless, all agreed: McCain was the candidate who might lower gas prices.

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But, in a worrisome sign for McCain, even one of Pasco’s most prominent Republicans says he’s not sure where his loyalties will take him in November.

Alex Deeb, who owns several construction companies, said he “couldn’t build houses fast enough” in Bush’s first term. But now, one of his firms just laid off 10 workers.

Deeb thinks McCain “doesn’t get it on the economy” and wishes he could vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “At least she understands the economy,” said Deeb, who says he’s a “dyed-in-the-wool Republican.”

When pressed, Deeb said he’d probably wind up voting for McCain. But the presumptive GOP nominee shouldn’t bother asking for a campaign donation. Deeb said he wouldn’t send him a check.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writer Vimal Patel contributed to this report.

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About this series

Voter anxiety over the weakening economy and other problems is a central feature of the 2008 presidential election. This occasional series will examine how the candidates are responding to the discontent and how they would approach the country’s biggest challenges.


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