By KEN THOMAS | The Associated Press
KISSIMMEE—If Central Florida is the state’s most contested political battleground, the borders of state Rep. John Quinones’ district may be the front lines.
The district, covering parts of Orange and Osceola counties, holds a growing Puerto Rican community and sits in the middle of the hotly contested Interstate 4 corridor. It appears up for grabs: It supported Gov. Jeb Bush during the last two gubernatorial elections, but it gave Al Gore nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2000.
Quinones, a Republican first elected in 2002, expects the campaign to be closely contested in his mini-battleground district and plans to work overtime to urge Puerto Ricans, traditionally registered Democrats, to support President Bush.
“You cannot just say that a group of Puerto Ricans as a bloc are going to vote Democratic or are going to vote Republican,” Quinones said.
Strategists say the state’s closely divided electorate will mean an extensive outreach by both parties to Hispanic voters in Central Florida, black and retired voters and independent-minded residents who could make the difference in the first presidential race in Florida since the recount.
Bush and John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, have already indicated that Central Florida will be a major target: Bush courted NASCAR voters at the Daytona 500 and visited Tampa during a trip last month, and Kerry traveled to Orlando after staking claim to the nomination in the Super Tuesday primaries.
Evidenced by the 2000 election, Florida remains the nation’s top toss-up state. The Supreme Court stopped the recount of Florida ballots after five weeks, with Bush ahead of Gore by just 537 votes out of 6 million cast. The state’s 25 electoral votes put Bush in the White House.
Democrats, with 3.88 million registered voters in Florida, hold an edge over the state’s 3.58 million registered Republicans. But statewide elections tend to pivot on the 1.8 million registered voters who do not belong to either party. Many conservative Democrats in North Florida, meanwhile, tend to support Republicans in national and state elections, making Florida a virtual tossup.
Since 2000 election, the majority of new registered voters have chosen not to align themselves with any party—more than 218,000 in total through January. Republicans have aggressively registered new voters, swelling their ranks by more than 156,000 voters in the same period. The number of registered Democrats has grown by more than 100,000.
Florida’s constant evolution makes the push for uncommitted voters all the more important.
Hispanics will likely be among the most targeted voters in the Florida campaign. Hispanics in Florida grew about 70 percent during the 1990s and now include about 2.7 million residents, according to the 2000 U.S. census. Nearly half of Florida’s 482,000 Puerto Ricans live along the Interstate 4 corridor.
During his re-election campaign, Jeb Bush campaigned extensively in the Hispanic community, using his fluency in Spanish to stress his views on taxes, economic development and efforts to strengthen families. He carried Central Florida’s Puerto Rican community and coupled it with overwhelming support of South Florida’s Cuban-American community to build a strong Hispanic base.
“They did everything possible to touch the Hispanic community,” said Nancy Acevedo, chair of the Central Florida chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.
But Democrats have argued the Republican policies on jobs and health care have hurt many Hispanic families across the state and the party will compete heavily for Latino voters in Florida.
“The Republican Party is reaching out to the Democratic base but they’re going to have a very difficult time explaining their stances on the issues,” said Scott Maddox, chairman of the state Democratic party.
The party has also sent signals it will try to court some CubanAmerican voters. President Clinton got close to 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 1996, and Democrats have sought more support following complaints from some Cuban-Americans that the Bush administration has not been tough enough on Fidel Castro’s regime.
Democrats say they hope to maintain their strong advantage among black voters, who account for about 11 percent of the electorate. Gore trailed Bush in Florida early on, but they got a boost from a massive voter registration drive by black leaders. About 610,000 black Floridians voted, nearly 50 percent more than in 1996, and the former vice president received about 90 percent of those votes.
“Al Gore had one of the most effective and hardworking turnout efforts in Florida in the history of the state, and there’s no reason to think that the eventual nominee won’t duplicate that effort,” said Karl Koch, a veteran Democratic strategist in Florida.
Both parties will also compete for Florida’s 3.7 million residents ages 60 and older. The older segment of the group tends to trend toward Democrats based on lifelong support since the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But the Depression Era retirees are holding less of an influential role in state elections. They are being replaced by younger retirees who are more likely to be swayed by health-care initiatives pushed by President Bush, such as the prescription drug benefit to Medicare, or social issues such as gay marriages.
“I think right now you’ve got the situation where the more volatile, “younger-older” voters, they could go in either direction,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist who has studied elderly voting issues.
To attract the pivotal voters, both parties are planning extensive outreach operations. Republicans have steadily trained activists to carry the president’s message, while Democrats have vowed to develop a massive getout-the-vote organization. Even with an election months away, nothing will be left to chance.
“(Democrats are) going to go to every nook and cranny of this state to assure that they have a high voter turnout,” Jeb Bush said at a Miami training session in late January. “We cannot assume that this is going to be a landslide election. We have to assume that it’s going to be a close election.”