Look around this county of 1.2 million and you'll find a mash-up of past and future: a solidly Democratic city bracketed by Republican-leaning suburbs; strawberry fields, ranch-style homes, and gentrified urban neighborhoods; Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, African-Americans, Midwestern retirees, college kids, active military, and young families; the brick and wrought iron of historic Ybor City, and the stucco and terra-cotta of the Sun City Center senior community.
The county boasts the nation's seventh-largest seaport, the fourth-largest zoo, three major-league sports teams, and an annual festival honoring pirate invasions of the 18th and 19th centuries. It sits at the intersection of Interstate 75, which traverses the United States from north to south, and I-4, which bisects Florida from east to west. This is holy ground for pollsters and advertisers scouting a cross section of America.
"To me, it's the linchpin," said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who has overseen dozens of focus groups in the county, including one last month that analyzed Republicans' views of presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "If you want to understand the swings in the electorate, you are likely to find them in Hillsborough County. It tends to be a good mirror."
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