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Florida looms as epicenter of 2012 battle

15 june 2011, 14:32
Florida is already becoming a pivotal skirmish in President Barack Obama's reelection bid, with maneuvering worthy of its rich history of political chicanery and disputed cliffhanger elections, AFP reports.

Seventeen months before election day, the Sunshine State offers clues to the forces shaping nationwide Republican and Democratic 2012 campaigns, no more so than with its crawl out of economic malaise.

Both sides understand just how important Florida is. In 2012, the state has a precious 29 of the 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to be president -- the highest number of any of a dozen or so swing states.

"The maths are pretty simple. It is very difficult in any scenario that the Republicans don't carry Florida but win the White House," said Peter Brown of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Obama could lose midwestern bastions Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, plus New Hampshire and still cling to the White House if he wins Florida and locks in the rest of his 2008 electoral map.

State polling shows a disgruntled electorate, lashing out at Obama and new Republican governor Rick Scott over a state unemployment rate of 10.8 percent and a home foreclosure mess.

Obama got a "bounce" after the killing of Osama bin Laden -- capturing a 51 percent approval rating in the latest Quinnipiac Florida survey in late May, though has little breathing room.

The key question for next year may be whether Obama can drive voters enthused by his calls for hope and change back to the polls, despite their dashed dreams of the new politics he vowed to forge.

Obama launched his Florida campaign in Miami on Monday, mentoring youthful supporters.

"I know the conversation you guys are having... 'I'm not feeling as hopeful as I was,'" the president said.

"But I never said this was going to be easy. This is a democracy... and our political process is messy."

Obama turned out 1.1 million African Americans in Florida in 2008, inspired by the thought of one of their own in the White House.

"Getting that key demographic to turn out again is going to be exceedingly difficult because the change that was promised hasn't been delivered for many of them," said Professor Daniel Smith, a Florida University elections expert.

Obama also won 60 percent of Latino men, and 55 percent of Latino women, a vital demographic nationwide.

The Hispanic vote was one reason Obama flew to Puerto Rico on Tuesday, seeking to win favor with former islanders who are US citizens and live in Florida.

The Puerto Rican diaspora is especially prominent in central Florida, an area which Obama split 50-50 with Republican John McCain in 2008.

Republicans will run hard in Florida against Obama's record, saying he made the economy worse, not better, and has failed to create jobs.

And seeking to slow Obama's get-out-the-vote juggernaut, Florida Republicans have passed a sheaf of new legislation.

"The deck is stacked against the Obama campaign even more so in 2012 than four years ago due to some changes in electoral code that is going to make it more difficult to register new voters," said Smith.

The law limits early voting, which Obama used to great effect in 2008, especially among African Americans, many of whom went straight from church to vote on the Sunday before the election.

Civil liberties groups say the law discriminates against black voters who use early voting more than whites, and have launched legal challenges.

Republicans, however, say the new measures will cut vote fraud.

Obama operatives will need new tactics to get around the laws and may resort to a staple of Florida politics by claiming Republicans are suppressing votes.

The charge has particular resonance as many Democrats believe the 2000 election was stolen in a disputed recount finally halted by a US Supreme Court that saw George W. Bush beat Al Gore to the presidency.

Democrats also see hope in the unpopularity of Scott, with his anemic approval ratings of 29 percent.

"In Florida, our governor is the antithesis of the president," Democratic state representative Dwight Bullard told AFP.

"We have seen what the other side looks like."

Bullard said Democrats would also raise Republican plans to overhaul the beloved Medicare health program for the elderly.

"Frightening seniors is a proven tactic that is successful in mobilizing older voters," said Smith.

Raising Obama's support among seniors could be decisive: in 2008, he won or tied among voters aged up to 64 but lost to McCain by eight points among those over 65 years old who made up 22 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls.

By Stephen Collinson

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