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Obama is making a serious play for Florida

Martin County Democrats

Among Obama's battlegrounds, Florida at the fore

Copyright 2008 HeraldTribune.com
By Joe Follick
Published: Friday, October 10, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - In an unprecedented display of television advertising and field organization for a Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama has moved Florida to the forefront of his battleground states.

Signs are everywhere that Obama is making a serious play for a state that most experts believed would back Republican presidential candidate John McCain in the end. Half of the Obama campaign's top six national TV advertising markets are in Florida. On the ground, the Obama campaign has assembled what experts say is the largest army of paid and volunteer staff for a Democratic campaign in the state's history. And this week, Obama dispatched two of his top campaign deputies to focus on the final stretch of the race here.

Karl Koch, the Democratic strategist who ran Bill Clinton's successful Florida campaign in 1996 and was an adviser for Al Gore in 2000, said Obama's advertising advantage was unprecedented.

"In '96 and 2000, where we had races that were aggressively competitive in the state, we never reached those kinds of numbers," he said.

During the week of Sept. 28-Oct. 4, Obama had a 3-to-1 spending advantage over McCain. Obama spent $2.2 million on television advertising in Florida, compared with only $659,000 for McCain, according to new data released by University of Wisconsin political scientists who are monitoring the national advertising campaigns.

The heavy advertising -- a result of Obama's fundraising advantage over McCain -- opens the possibility that Obama could carry the state, which has not been won by a Democrat since Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996.

The advertising blitz underscores the importance of Florida as one of Obama's national priorities. Half of the Democratic candidate's top national advertising markets are in the state: Tampa, Orlando and Miami, according to the Wisconsin report.

During the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, only television viewers in Las Vegas -- which was saturated with 1,288 Obama ads -- saw more commercials than viewers in Tampa Bay, where 1,069 Obama ads ran. In contrast, McCain only ran 364 ads in the Tampa market.

In another critical Interstate 4 market, Obama ran 908 ads in the Orlando area, compared with 417 for McCain. Obama also had 824 ads in the Miami market.

Koch said Obama's heavy emphasis on Florida will force McCain to defend the state.

"There is no math that gets the Republican nominee into the White House without Florida; it cannot happen," Koch said. "As you saw in 1996 with Bill Clinton, when the Democrat has the ability to come in here and take Florida, it's over."

Aside from the advertising advantage, Koch and other Democratic strategists say Obama has put in place the largest "ground army" they have seen for a Democratic presidential candidate in Florida, including some 50 field offices, more than 450 paid staffers and tens of thousands of volunteers.

The campaign organization was responsible in part for a voter registration drive that netted the Democrats 45 percent of the 804,000 new voters who registered between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30. The Republicans claimed 24 percent of the new voters.

The campaign is now focused on turning out those new voters as well as the party regulars for the election.

Koch, who has also run gubernatorial campaigns in the state, said Obama's field organization was "bigger than anything I've ever been associated with."

In comparison, Democrat John Kerry only had 20 field offices in 2004, said Eric Jotkoff, who was one of Kerry's state field organizers.

Another sign of Obama's emphasis on Florida was his decision this week to bring in two of his national campaign aides -- Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager, and Paul Tewes, an elections organizing specialist -- to help Steve Schale, who has been running Obama's Florida campaign. Tewes, who ran Obama's Iowa campaign, was credited with helping Obama pull off that early caucus victory that provided momentum for his successful primary campaign.

"It speaks directly to and exactly how important and close that they think Florida is," said Koch, who worked with Hildebrand on the Clinton and Gore campaigns. "You're bringing two of the most talented Democratic operatives in the entire country into Florida."

According to the latest Federal Election Commission reports from the end of August, Obama had raised $454 million and had $77 million on hand. McCain, by contrast, had raised $210 million and had $27 million cash on hand. Obama raised a record $66 million in August alone and his campaign said it expected to match or exceed that in September.

Republicans downplayed Obama's advertising barrage and his field organization.

Brian Ballard, one of McCain's top fundraisers in Florida, said Obama's spending advantage will not necessarily translate into a Democratic victory.

"When you spend like a drunken sailor, it can give a false impression of a sound organization. Money covers a lot of flaws," said Ballard. "We will see whether or not their organization is anything more than a dumping by the wheelbarrow full of money in Florida."

Ballard and other Republicans point out their party's impressive track record of bringing voters to the polls and electing statewide candidates.

"Organizations are tested over time and I think the Republican organization has been tested in governor's races and Senate races," Ballard said. "They will certainly outspend us. We're going to get our vote out."

There are also signs that the Republicans are stepping up their efforts for the McCain campaign.

Gov. Charlie Crist will attend a "grassroots rally" for McCain and other GOP candidates in the state on Oct. 18 in Orlando. McCain is not scheduled to attend.

Crist, whose popularity with Florida voters has weathered the economic downturn, toured the state with McCain late last month and with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin last week.

Koch said Obama faces an "uphill fight" in a state that has only voted for two Democratic presidential candidates in the last 32 years.

But, he said, Obama's message of "change," coupled with the state's economic problems, is resonating with the voters.

"When you talk about job losses, you talk about foreclosures, you talk about real estate problems, Florida is right there at the cusp of all the bad things that are happening.

"The people of Florida are going to be looking for a new direction. And that's the challenge that each candidate has and that challenge breaks more favorably for Senator Obama."

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)