Florida's I-4 Corridor Influences GOP Primary

fromWUSF

Almost half of Florida's registered Republican voters live along the I-4 Corridor. The interstate connects two of the state's largest cities Tampa Bay and Orlando. The state holds its GOP presidential primary on Tuesday.

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With Florida's primary just a day away, the candidates are focusing on what's known as the highway to presidential political heaven. That would be Interstate 4. By some estimates almost half of Florida's Republican voters live along that corridor. Bobbie O'Brien of member station WUSF drove down the highway to talk to some Florida voters.

BOBBIE O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Interstate 4 is a 132-mile ribbon of concrete that links Florida's Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast. It also connects two of Florida's largest media markets – the Tampa Bay region and Orlando.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey, folks. How are you? Just have your picture ID out, there's no line.

O'BRIEN: Two blocks off I-4 in Orlando, early voters stream in to the Orange County Elections Office. Hilda Kolb is there, dressed in a peach-colored outfit. She's dropping off her early ballot, timing it with her volunteer day at the hospital to save gas. The retiree is not happy with either party.

HILDA KOLB: But I changed to Republican, temporarily, last election, because I am not an Obama person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Kolb wouldn't say who she voted for, but her frustration isn't surprising to Susan MacManus. She's a longtime political science professor at the University of South Florida.

SUSAN MACMANUS: The dominate thing Floridians are looking for is someone who can win Florida. Republican pride was greatly damaged when they lost the state and it turned blue in 2008. They don't want a repeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

O'BRIEN: I'm about ready to get on to I-4 again. We're about halfway down the I-4 corridor.

The highway here in Orlando is lined with hotels and theme parks, like Universal Studios and Disney World. Florida's tourism industry was hit hard by the recession.

A short drive away, we stop next at a private airstrip near Polk City. Donald Coleman just got his first ride in a biplane. He and his wife Paula moved here from Ohio. Both have already voted for Newt Gingrich.

PAULA COLEMAN: He's just more forceful. We can't have a wimpy president again. We've got to get somebody in there that says no, yes. You know, none of these I'll let you know in three months type of president.

DONALD COLEMAN: Yeah, that's not right. If you're going to make a decision, let's make a decision and don't wait six, seven, eight months.

O'BRIEN: But not all Florida Republicans have made up their minds.

CHERYL MEEKS: Five thirteen?

O'BRIEN: The fragrance of fresh strawberries mixes with the scent of oranges as customers line up at Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City. Owner Cheryl Meeks has seen her share of politicians – Barack Obama and John McCain visited in 2008. She hasn't decided, yet, who will get her vote this time.

MEEKS: Every time I read something I say, OK, I'm going to go that way and then I read something else and then I'm going to go that way. So I'm going to really have to study.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish language spoken)

O'BRIEN: Exit 1 on I-4 is Ybor City, Tampa's historic Hispanic neighborhood. Hispanics make up 11 percent of Republican voters, but the majority are Cuban-American and live in Miami. Tampa had one of the state's biggest increases in registered Republicans. That includes Derek Enderlot, who skipped high school last week to attend a Newt Gingrich rally with his parents.

DEREK ENDERLOT, BYLINE: It makes sense - just the way the Republicans and the conservatives think.

O'BRIEN: Define conservative for me.

ENDERLOT: It's cutting back on spending, saving money and doing what you can to keep your finances under control.

O'BRIEN: With almost half of Florida's GOP voters living along Interstate-4, people like Derek Enderlot may ultimately decide which Republican candidate will win Florida's primary tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Bobbie O'Brien in Tampa.

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