Florida is once again expected to play a pivotal role in this year's presidential election.
Because the state violated party rules by holding an early primary, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and the other Democratic candidates stayed away through most of the primary season — giving Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain an advantage.
But in recent weeks, Obama has mounted a comeback, with the kind of campaign that fellow Democrats have not seen before. Obama's Florida campaign is far better funded — with more offices, paid staff and volunteers — than Al Gore's campaign in 2000 or John Kerry's in 2004. The Obama campaign has already opened at least 25 offices around the state, and it's opening more daily.
These regional offices are in places that traditionally have belonged to the Republicans, such as Ocala, Panama City, Sarasota, Fort Myers and Naples. The state Republican Party has helped the McCain campaign open offices across the state, too. But McCain has not been able to match Obama's resources, particularly his fundraising and money. Since June, Obama has spent more than $5 million on campaign ads in Florida, while McCain has spent nothing.
The Obama campaign has something else: large numbers of committed volunteers. Just about every day, there's an Obama event going on somewhere in South Florida.
Counting On Volunteers
Boca Raton resident Jane Chapman is one of dozens of volunteers across the state talking to motorists at gas stations. "We're bringing people's attention to Barack Obama's energy policy," she says.
Chapman belongs to several Obama groups that coordinate and publicize their events on the campaign's social networking Web site.
For Chapman, political activism is something new. A few years ago, she started by making phone calls for the independent political group MoveOn.org. But it was Obama, she says, who really got her motivated.
"The day he announced [his candidacy] I was so excited that I went on BarackObama.com, like they told us to, and I put in my ZIP code to join a local group and there wasn't one yet, 'cause it was the first day," she says. "So even though I had never done anything like this before, I started a local group. And we've been busy ever since. We have about 300 members now."
For several months, it was volunteers like Chapman who kept the Obama campaign alive in Florida while he stayed out of the state.
Florida Polls Still Problematic For Obama
Obama's lack of appearances in Florida during the primary season is still a problem for him. Political analysts say volunteers will not be able to close the deal entirely.
Polls in the state show Obama still has work to do to win over senior citizens and Jewish voters — groups that have traditionally supported Democrats.
In the meantime, McCain has something working in his favor: a powerful and tested Florida Republican organization.
Katie Gordon is with the state GOP. She says the party is initiating the same grass-roots machine that helped President George W. Bush, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Charlie Crist carry Florida.
"I mean, this is the Republican machine that's maintained majorities in the state House and Senate, in the congressional delegation and three or four Cabinet seats," Gordon says. "So I think we're starting to see the team come back together again for 2008, just as they did in 2006, 2004."
The McCain campaign has also started organizing phone banks and doing voter outreach at naturalization ceremonies and gun shows. Both campaigns say this kind of voter mobilization is the biggest boost they can get from volunteers.
For the catch-up Obama campaign, this means not only finding the voters but also inspiring and organizing them between now and November.