No Democratic presidential nominee has won Sarasota County, set on one of the most affluent and conservative strips of Florida's Gulf Coast, since Franklin Roosevelt did in 1944. It's home to loyal Republicans like Katherine Harris, who oversaw Florida's controversial 2000 presidential vote recount. But in 2008, women like Joan Smith Geyer may decide Sarasota's outcome. Geyer, 62, is among a growing number of Sarasota Republicans voting for Barack Obama. A big reason, she says, is that John McCain hasn't proved to be the GOP moderate that Floridians thought their moderate GOP governor, Charlie Crist, was endorsing during the state's primary race in January. "I don't agree with the fear tactics the McCain campaign has been using here," says Geyer, who has even offered one of her empty rental properties as an Obama campaign office. "If McCain had picked Crist as his running mate, he might be having an easier time in Florida."
McCain himself admitted as much last week. And as it is, the outlook in the Sunshine State for his campaign is surprisingly dark. The Arizona Senator may have Crist and a Republican-controlled legislature behind him. But Florida's deepening economic crisis, as well as the fact that McCain passed him over for the vice-presidential slot that many Floridians thought he should get, seems to have made Crist a less than ardent McCain campaigner this fall. By most accounts, McCain's national campaign staff has done a dismal job coordinating with the usually potent GOP machine on the ground in Florida. "This is a Florida campaign being run out of Washington," says a concerned GOP official in Tallahassee, "and it's remarkable how little it has its finger on the pulse of this state."
Lately that pulse has been beating stronger for Obama. In recent weeks McCain has fallen behind his Democratic rival in Florida by as many as 8 points in some polls, though others still show the race a virtual dead heat. The nation's financial crisis is of course a factor: Florida is getting waylaid by home foreclosures at a rate few other states can match, and business owners like Geyer and her husband are having to undertake painful employee layoffs to stay afloat. Though Crist insists he's still enthusiastic about McCain's candidacy, he said last week that he must devote more time to the economic problems. The fact that Obama is outspending McCain by a 3-to-1 margin there is certainly another hurdle, as is the reality that new Democratic voters have outregistered Republicans in Florida this year by more than 2-to-1. "The closest McCain campaign office is 12 miles from me while Obama has two near my house," says Sharon Longobarde, 61, an antiques dealer at a rally for McCain in Miami on Friday.
But beneath the obvious challenges he faces lies a deeper source for McCain's troubles in Florida, the swing state which, he acknowledged at the Miami rally, his struggling campaign "must win." It's not so much that McCain didn't tap Crist for his ticket; rather, it's the widespread feeling that McCain hasn't tapped into the more civil, issues-driven political style that most Floridians have embraced since Crist was elected in 2006.
Crist's bipartisan agenda was an antidote for a state exhausted by partisan ugliness like the 2000 recount and the Terri Schiavo spectacle of 2005, and it's why half or more of Floridians still give him a thumbs-up in polls this year despite the economic disaster and his own difficulties reining in Florida's exorbitant property taxes and insurance premiums. "That reach-across-the-aisle character was the same thing John McCain was identified with" when Crist supported McCain in the January primary, notes Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux.
But that open-minded, independent spirit has been in short supply this fall. The McCain campaign brought its red-meat attack strategy to the peninsula featuring his running mate, conservative Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who suggested at a rally in Clearwater that Obama was an America basher who "worked with terrorists." It has also started contacting voters with automated, so-called robo-calls identifying Obama along with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Nor did it help last week when McCain, complaining about the admittedly boneheaded voter-registration tactics of left-leaning activist groups like ACORN, somewhat petulantly suggested that Democrat-engineered voter fraud could cost him Florida on Nov. 4. Crist later called that notion exaggerated, saying that in the closing days of a campaign "there are some who enjoy chaos." The McCain campaign, says Geyer, "is using Year 2000 political ideas and thinking they're automatically going to work eight years later."
They still could, of course. McCain, whose Friday visit was his first to Florida since June, plans to make a big push there these last two weeks. "I don't really think he's behind," says Allison DeFoor, a member of McCain's Florida advisory board. "I don't see the [poll] math, frankly. But if there is one thing the McCain campaign is very good at, it's knowing when the election is," he adds, noting McCain's come-from-behind victory in the Florida primary. "He's a closer." Republican political consultant Cory Tilley, a top aide to former Florida governor Jeb Bush, argues that McCain is "doing the right thing to raise doubts about Obama's record and judgment. No campaign wants to be sitting down the day after an election asking, 'Did we not do everything we could?' " But, Tilley concedes, "this is a different Florida landscape than it was four years ago, so the difficult question becomes, How do you deliver the message right in this important state?"
For starters, many Florida Republicans grouse privately, McCain's national campaign could start listening to current state GOP leaders. The last time Beltway Republicans really had to break a sweat in Florida was during the fierce 2000 recount battle, and many have come to take the state for granted since then assuming, for instance, that their previously superior ground game will once again prove decisive. One result is that they may not be lending enough of an ear to people like McCain's Florida campaign director, Arlene DiBenigno, another top Crist aide, who can counsel them on Florida's new political tenor.
DiBenigno's coordination skills have come under scrutiny of late, but LeMieux, who thinks McCain can still win Florida, insists that "Arlene is an excellent campaign strategist" who helped forge Crist's image as a "bipartisan problem solver who stands out in juxtaposition to today's Washington."
At a state GOP gathering over the weekend, a county party official asked Crist why he hadn't yet appeared in any ads in support of McCain. "I haven't been asked," Crist said, before stressing that he would "do anything they ask me to." It's not as if McCain's campaign doesn't have recent examples of how the Crist-Florida bond works. Last summer, pundits predicted that McCain's call for oil-drilling off Florida's coast would alienate huge swaths of the state's generally eco-conscious electorate. But after Crist backed McCain on the subject, a majority of Floridians came onboard to the idea, provided there were sufficient environmental safeguards. The goodwill Crist built, however, has been undermined by the McCain campaign's insistence on turning the issue into a "Drill, baby, drill!" onslaught, says the Republican official in Tallahassee.
Either way, Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer felt compelled to convene a meeting of the party's state leadership in Tallahassee earlier this month to regroup. Sources say it yielded few solutions. A big GOP headache is Florida's ultra-fluid demographics. The state has one of the nation's largest hoards of independent voters, almost one-fifth of the electorate, EMS, and the centrist trend is creeping into once solid GOP bastions like Sarasota. Crossover Republicans like Geyer are news; but Sarasota Democrats can be just as averse to straight-ticket life. David Grain, 46, an African-American Democrat and the millionaire founder of Grain Communications, is a top fund raiser for Obama but also for Sarasota GOP congressional incumbent Vern Buchanan. "The whole party arrangement has gotten very old and stale for people like me," says Grain. Consequently, hyper-partisan campaigning has become a turnoff for a growing number of Floridians of all political stripes. Or, as Sarasota Democratic Party Chairman Rita Ferrandino puts it, Obama may be drawing local Republicans to his camp because he "reminds people of Crist more than McCain does."
On the flip side, Palin may be reminding Floridians too much of Katherine Harris, one of the state's most polarizing political figures. Harris, who won Sarasota's congressional seat in 2002 but was badly defeated in her 2006 Senate bid, is more like Everycountryclubmatron compared with Palin's Everyhockeymom. But Palin's Harris-like image of inexperience can't be helping with women voters like Geyer. Palin's strident tone and mocking attacks on Obama have failed to galvanize Florida women for McCain; Obama holds a 12-point lead among that group in this month's Mason-Dixon poll.
Still, McCain's peninsular campaign seemed to be gelling at his raucous rally on the Florida International University campus. Crist was on hand, telling the crowd that "this is giddyap time" and insisting McCain "is a guy who knows how to close a fight strong! Never count out John McCain!" More important, McCain himself set aside the ideological invective and zoomed in on Florida's bust. "Obama's associations with terrorists are important," says Longobarde, the antiques dealer, "but McCain needs to be talking about the economy and our housing collapse." She was gratified when McCain dived into his plan for buying up bad mortgages and "saving Florida homes and familes," as he declared. The question is whether there's enough giddyap time to save McCain's Florida campaign.