Fractious Florida weighs heavily on presidential campaigns

TAMPA, Fla. —No state is more crucial to Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the White House than Florida, and no issue here is more important than the economy.

That dynamic played out recently when Vice President Joe Biden came to the perennial electoral vote battleground to promote the Obama administration’s environmental record by riding an airboat through the Everglades.

The Romney camp responded with a stinging assault on President Obama’s “failed” economic policies. The targets: a Florida jobless rate that exceeds the national average, painfully high gasoline prices, rising healthcare costs and one of the worst housing collapses in the country. The environment wasn’t even mentioned.

“The tough economic climate in Florida is like a giant anchor around Obama’s ankles,” said Florida strategist Alberto Martinez, a senior Romney campaign advisor.

Long a powerful magnet for Northern retirees and tourist hordes from around the world, Florida is an economic laggard this election year, which helps explain why Obama chose to begin his reelection campaign instead in Ohio and Virginia, two other must-wins for Romney, which are faring better economically than Florida.

From the sultry Latin-infused tip of the peninsula to the pine woods panhandle that juts into Dixie, deserted storefronts and empty commercial buildings languish across the state. Weeds choke the abandoned streets and vacant lots of so-called zombie subdivisions, remnants of a speculative bubble that continues to depress the housing market and voters’ mood. In Tampa, where Romney and his running mate will be crowned at this summer’s nominating convention, home prices just hit another new low.

Jobs are coming back. But in a familiar pattern, they don’t always match those lost in the recession. Last month, more than 3,300 applicants showed up for 400 new positions at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, many of them low-paying service jobs.

“We’re starting to see seeds of recovery, but it’s way late and way slower than it should have been,” said Martinez, the Romney advisor.

Obama planted his flag in the nation’s fourth-most populous state years ago and never left. As president, he’s been a frequent visitor, making two trips last month. His campaign has opened more than a dozen Florida offices, including a bustling storefront down the street from the Republican-controlled Capitol in Tallahassee. If both sides engage fully, total campaign spending in the state could reach $150 million.

In 2008, Obama carried Florida by 2.8 percentage points, well below his national popular vote margin, in what was “a perfect environment” for him, according to Steven Schale, who ran the state campaign that year.

“Because our economy is so dependent on other people spending money, when Americans have money, our booms last longer. And when they don’t, our busts take longer to get out of,” said Schale, an informal reelection advisor. “There’s not a damn thing the president can do to change that.”

Recent public opinion surveys give Romney a statistically insignificant lead in the state and show that Florida voters view him more favorably than those in other big swing states. That may reflect the estimated $18 million that the Romney forces spent to win the Florida primary, a pivotal fight in the nomination campaign.

Organizationally, though, Romney is playing catch-up. His entire Florida team was dispatched to other states after the January victory and is just now reassembling.

“Obama was opening up storefronts all over the state, while the Republican candidates were duking it out in places that don’t matter in the general election,” said another Romney advisor in Florida, requesting anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign. “If you injected me with sodium pentothal and asked me what one thing bothers me most, it’s what the Obama campaign has done at the ground level.”

But sharp restrictions on new voter registration, imposed last year by the Republican-led Legislature, have slowed Obama’s efforts to expand the electorate to make up for those who have soured on him. And even Democratic strategists say Romney’s team has enough time to put together a successful statewide operation.

One potential wild card: Sen. Marco Rubio, a charismatic Cuban American and leading vice presidential contender. He could help with the state’s Latinos, about 15% of the electorate, and possibly tip the state to the Republicans.

Romney is also trying to cut Obama’s support among Jewish voters, about 5% of the electorate, by highlighting the administration’s rocky relations with Israel.

Obama, in turn, is wooing independents, including suburban women turned off by Romney’s attacks on Planned Parenthood and his decision to side with conservatives in the debate over healthcare coverage for contraceptive services. Democrats are also targeting affluent, socially moderate coastal residents who place a high value on a pristine environment.

Romney’s campaign is working daily to keep the state’s woes front and center. His chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, is one of several aides with Florida experience (he advised former Gov. Charlie Crist, who later left the GOP and became an independent — the fastest-growing slice of the state’s 11.3-million voter pool). Since last year, the campaign has pushed Florida-themed Web ads that feature scenes from a Miami-area job fair for minorities.

The “Obama Isn’t Working” attacks inadvertently trace a trend that could complicate Romney’s effort: an improving employment picture — from a jobless rate of 10.7%, highlighted in a video in September, to 9.4% in one released last month. The rate has since dropped to 9%, compared with 8.1% nationally.

But voter opinion often lags statistical trends, a boon for Romney even if the job picture brightens. The last president defeated for reelection, George H.W. Bush in 1992, lost in part because voters hadn’t yet felt that the economy was growing.

In Florida, many economically sensitive swing voters, the sort who decide close elections, haven’t discerned progress in their lives over the last four years.

“Jobs have not improved,” said Ben Drawdy, 33, a Lutz, Fla., salesman. “For working-class voters, it’s not a good situation for us.”

The registered Republican voted for Obama last time but backs Romney now. He recently joined a focus group of 12 Floridians, assembled by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, who sharply criticized Romney yet indicated, in overwhelming numbers, that they would vote for him anyway.

In an interview, Drawdy said he was “absolutely” concerned about a clean environment. But he dismissed Biden’s recent Everglades stop as a political stunt designed to distract attention from “bigger issues” like the economy, retirement security and gasoline prices.

Four years ago, Obama “just blew me away. He sold me on a lot of things that he didn’t deliver. He said he’d stimulate the economy with jobs and make healthcare affordable, and it really has not been the case,” he said. “People can’t pay their bills.”