Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Vital suburban voters squarely on the fence"

St. Petersburg Times (FL):
Want to know which presidential candidate is going to win Florida's 27 electoral votes?

Drive by the SuperTarget on Bruce B. Downs Blvd. in south-central Pasco County, wind through mile after mile of beige stucco in the Meadow Pointe development, then turn into the entrance of the Wrencrest Rensselaer neighborhood.

The answer may lie inside Wrencrest's metal privacy gates.
"I'm really torn. For the first time in a long time, we have two good choices here," said Kenny McDonnell, 53, a motivational speaker for youth who has frequently skipped presidential elections rather than pick the lesser of two evils.

Not this year.

"My initial thinking was that I wanted the kind of character and experience that John McCain has. In the world we live in today, there's something to be said about a guy who can operate under pressure and pick up that red phone at 3 o'clock in the morning,'' McDonnell said. "But I'm 53 years old and remember John F. Kennedy and I can get caught up in the excitement of Barack Obama. He's extremely charismatic and intelligent, we've had for years, for generations, pretty much the same old, same old in Washington. So maybe it's time to bring some fresh eyes and perspective in."

Welcome to Pasco County voting Precinct 134, also known as Meadow Pointe phase III, the sort of suburban, swing-voter battleground where both Barack Obama and John McCain can stake a credible claim.

Here amid identical white curbside mailboxes, 25-foot-tall oaks and 4-year-old, $200,000, single-story homes in shades of tan, you can see how unpredictable and confounding Florida can be for campaign strategists.

A hunger for change

Obama will do well in America's urban areas, McCain will dominate the rural, and the election is likely to be decided in the middle. In places like Wrencrest. Here, you can see how wide open this presidential race is four months out.

Talk to the busy suburbanites on Chatterly Drive and Thackery Way in Wrencrest Rensselaer, and the impression is McCain can't win the election, but Obama could lose it. The hunger for a change in direction is fierce, but Obama has yet to win the trust of many of these voters.

What will settle the decision for many voters is unclear, but it may not be entirely about issues. These voters say they're waiting to be persuaded, for somebody to make them comfortable with a choice, either choice.

"I'm really thinking about not voting. I know that sounds horrendous, but what do you do when you're so torn you're throwing your hands up?'' asked Maria Morway-Fraraccio, 40, whose 2-year-old and 9-month-old keep her too busy to closely follow presidential politics.

A registered independent, she voted for Bush in 2004, but has been disappointed and now doesn't want to vote for McCain this year because he seems like more of the same. And Obama? She echoed sentiments expressed by several of her female neighbors: "From what I see on TV, he seems very arrogant. I don't know if he's trustworthy."

In this bedroom community of Tampa, like so many others across Florida, voter after voter will tell you apologetically they're too busy with commuter jobs, soccer and T-ball, church and groceries, to pay close attention to the presidential race. Which partly explains why only about 63 percent of these voters turned out to cast ballots at the community clubhouse here in 2004. Statewide, the figure was 74 percent.

"You kind of feel like no matter who you vote for, it's not really going to make a difference in your life,'' explained 35-year-old Mike Fisicaro, inside his tricked-out, carpeted garage with a vast sofa, giant-screen TV, and football memorabilia.

Fisicaro, an alarm service technician, moved from New York five years ago for a more affordable area that would allow his wife to stay home with the kids. He's leaning Obama (change), but isn't sold on the Illinois senator's ability to fulfill his promises.

Door-to-door influence

John Kerry lost Florida by 5 percentage points in 2004 and won this precinct by 1, so Obama probably has to win a neighborhood like this comfortably if he wants to win Florida.

"You look at places where Al Gore did well and Kerry did poorly, and in places like Pasco County … our margins have to be a lot closer to Gore's than Kerry's,'' said Steve Schale, who is leading Obama's Florida campaign. (Kerry lost Pasco by more than 10 percentage points; Gore won by less than 1.)

With legions of grass roots supporters, the Obama campaign is hoping to repeat the Bush-Cheney recipe of neighbor-to-neighbor persuasion, though there's no sign of that sort of activity by either campaign yet in Wrencrest.

It's coming soon. The McCain campaign also is emphasizing grass roots, person-to-person outreach, and the GOP, especially in Pasco, has long been more effective at turning out voters than the Democrats. The state party already has a full-time field staffer in Pasco, and a campaign office.

What's more, Republicans have mastered the art of micro-targeting, sifting through voter and consumer data such as magazine subscriptions and auto preferences to find persuadable voters even in changing communities like Wrencrest.

"What that allows us to do is take a place that is a 50-50 split in a generic election and find the voters that we know we can turn over," said Sarah Simmons, the McCain campaign's director of strategy.

Still, in Wrencrest there's every reason to think Obama could increase Kerry's numbers, given the scale of the effort Obama's campaign supporters expect for Florida — 100 full-time staffers before long and tens of thousands of volunteers. Their aim is to turn out infrequent and new voters — and to capitalize on the shifting demographics in so many subdivisions like Wrencrest.

The GOP challenge

Even Pasco County's blustery GOP chairman Bill Bunting acknowledges concern with the 1,800-acre Meadow Pointe precincts. With the growing number of Democratic Hispanics moving in, he is concentrating on Hispanic outreach.

"I just don't feel like Republicans should be in office anymore. They've done enough,'' declared Ernesto Rodriguez, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in New York, owns a painting business, and moved to Meadow Pointe four years ago.

He is among the 14 percent of voters in this precinct who are Hispanic.

Wanda Fitzhugh is among the 13 percent who are African-American. A health care worker from Michigan, she followed the American dream with her elderly mother to Wrencrest in April, only to discover the tale of low-cost living in Florida and loads of opportunity is a myth.

"Obama is younger and McCain has much more experience, but sometimes experience isn't always a good thing,'' said Fitzhugh, a Democrat still searching for a good health care job in the Tampa Bay area. "If people actually pray about this, I think they will vote for Obama."

Down the street, though, Republicans Kathy and Howard Helm are equally sure McCain is the better choice.

"People want change, but not Obama change,'' said Mr. Helm, 50, a musician who doesn't buy Obama's talk of transcending partisanship. "From what I see, he votes pretty consistently along party lines."

Among the small, carefully coiffed front lawns in Wrencrest, here and there are overgrown, weed-infested properties. Neighbors explain them in a single word: foreclosures.

"A lot of houses are getting foreclosed on. Just in the past month, two of the kids that were at the kids' bus stop are gone. Actually, three families I know have had to move out,'' said Stephanie Golder, 43, a Republican who said she doesn't want to vote for McCain because she wants troops home from Iraq sooner, but finds Obama "a little too full of himself."

Golder is waiting to be convinced which candidate is the better choice, along with so many of her anxious neighbors in suburbia.

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