Obama Tries to Make Up With Florida

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Joe Raedle / Getty

A Barack Obama supporter hands out campaign stickers next to a cardboard cutout of the Democratic presidential candidate in Miami, Florida.

Senator Barack Obama's favorite campaign rallying cry is, "Fired up! Ready to go!" But when the Democratic Party's leading presidential hopeful visits Florida this week, he's likely to hear a grouchier refrain, something along the lines of, "It's about time!"

The less than passionate reception shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has followed the Sunshine State's latest election saga — least of all Obama, who hasn't visited the crucial battleground all year. Because the state's presidential primary was moved up to January 29, in violation of party rules, the Democratic National Committee effectively nullified the vote in advance and refused to seat any of Florida's Democratic delegates at this summer's convention (the Republicans, by contrast, only cut their delegate counts in half). Democratic rivals Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton also signed pledges not to campaign in Florida until after its primary. But once Clinton's 17-point victory was announced that night, she immediately appeared in Ft. Lauderdale to tell voters she would fight to get Florida's delegates seated.

Obama, by contrast, was nowhere to be found and still hasn't visited the state since. Many Florida Democrats consider him AWOL and even indifferent to their efforts to get the DNC to reinstate their delegates and make their January votes count. Obama "has repair work to do," says Democratic state Senator Nan Rich, a South Florida Clinton backer. "Rank-and-file Democrats here are frankly distressed by the fact that he appears disconnected from the state."

Granted, Clinton's fight on Florida's behalf is driven more by desperation than by principle. She didn't challenge the DNC's draconian sanctions early in the campaign when she was well ahead in the polls; but now she needs Florida's delegates and popular vote to have even a small chance to grab the nomination. Obama didn't question the DNC either; and now that he's the front-runner it's in his best interest to simply run out the clock. But that kind of political calculus isn't going to ease bruised feelings in the state.

Obama may now have the Democratic nomination all but sewn up, and even reinstating the delegates from Florida and Michigan (the other state sanctioned by the DNC for holding an early primary) almost certainly wouldn't change that. But memories of the 2000 presidential election recount crisis should be enough to dissuade a candidate from dissing Florida, the burgeoning, bellwether swing state with a mother lode of independent voters (almost a fifth of the electorate). And of all the large states Obama has had trouble winning in the primaries, Florida presents one of his biggest challenges in the general election. His bond with Latino voters is tepid at best; the Jewish community was wary of Obama's commitment to Israel well before President Bush hurled last week's "appeasement" charges his way; Florida's elderly, particularly women, form a solid Clinton base, and PR problems like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the elitist label remain a wall between Obama and many northern Floridians, especially in the state's conservative, blue-collar Panhandle.

Obama supporters insist he's poised to tackle all those obstacles during his three-day tour of Florida starting Wednesday. State Representative Dan Gelber, Florida's House Minority Leader and an Obama backer, acknowledges Obama "hasn't been here," but he argues that his absence "is only going to enhance his stature. People want to see him, hear him." U.S. Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who co-chairs Obama's state campaign, believes the Senator will get a warmer welcome than expected: "He's extremely appealing to independent voters and disaffected Republicans. This week really begins his general election campaign in terms of reaching out to them."

Wexler also doesn't think Obama has as much catching up to do in Florida as his critics claim. While a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released this month shows that Clinton would beat the presumptive Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, 49% to 41%, Obama trails McCain by only a point in the state, 44% to 43%. The Obama camp, in fact, feels his positions compare favorably to McCain's on issues Floridians will care about most in November. Those include abortion (Obama is pro-choice while McCain has pledged to seat Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade); privatizing Social Security, which McCain supports but which Obama, like most of Florida's massive retiree bloc, opposes; and a federal catastrophe insurance fund, which McCain opposes in the form that passed the House of Representatives this year but which Obama, like so many hurricane-battered Floridians, backs.

And it's hard to discount Obama's overwhelming support among African-Americans. In 2000 they channeled their anger at then Republican Governor Jeb Bush to the voting booth, and their massive turnout is widely credited with making the race in Florida so tight. "I think they're poised to play an even more important role this time," says Wexler. "They'll provide an enormous boost."

Still, Obama's Florida itinerary suggests he knows he has bridges to build on the peninsula. On Thursday he heads to Palm Beach and Broward Counties in South Florida, a region whose large Jewish and elderly populations voted heavily for Clinton in January. On Friday he'll lunch in Miami with Cuban-Americans and give what aides call an important foreign policy speech. He'll face the Cuba policy minefield — and will have to follow McCain, who will address Miami's Cuban community on Tuesday. But Obama could actually use the opportunity to enhance his standing with Latino voters. He is the only candidate who has questioned the Bush Administration's tough embargo measures against Cuba. And while that may have been political suicide in Miami a decade ago, it appeals to Florida's swelling ranks of non-Cuban Latinos as well as younger, more moderate Cuban-Americans.

A more difficult task for Obama, however, might be uniting Florida's hard-core Democrats behind him, starting with convincing them that he's as passionate as Clinton about seating their 210 delegates (only 67 of which Obama won) at the Denver convention in August. Florida Democratic leaders like Gelber and Wexler insist Obama is indeed battling to seat the delegates and that Florida will rally behind him. After Obama's visit this week, Gelber argues, the state's Clinton-Obama tensions will dissolve: "You're going to see everyone pivot and look toward November." But Obama can't waste any more time. Florida is a big, complicated state with a lot of ground to cover, and he doesn't have that much time between now and November to get it fired up and ready to go.

with reporting by Michael Peltier/Tallahassee