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Obama's Sun-Splashed Tank Battle

Florida is the ultimate test of the Democratic nominee's ambition to redraw the electoral map by reshaping the electorate.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When nearly 50,000 people gathered in the soft twilight here on Monday to hear Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the rally was eye-opening not only for its size but also for its timing. Even last summer, few observers expected that Obama would still be competitive in late October in Florida, which had trended sharply toward the GOP since its disputed 537-vote margin tilted the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. But this protean state has emerged as the ultimate test of Obama's ambition to redraw the electoral map by reshaping the electorate.

As he is doing across the country, Obama is blanketing Florida with staff, offices, and advertising, and he is attracting droves of volunteers. But here, in a state that John McCain cannot win without, Obama is facing one of the nation's most effective Republican organizations. The collision has produced a sun-splashed tank battle of a campaign.


Obama's side took round one. Through their persistent registration drive, Florida Democrats have doubled their lead in registered voters since last year, from about 312,000 to almost 660,000, according to state figures released on Monday. That surge of new registrants -- plus 600,000 African-Americans and an overlapping 900,000 young people who were already registered in 2004 but didn't vote -- could "fundamentally change the state," says Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, who has decamped to Miami to direct operations there.

Perhaps. But only if Democrats get their voters to the polls, something they traditionally haven't done as well as the state's Republicans. To reverse the historic pattern, Obama is relying on volunteers such as Roscoe Brown and Scott Warner, who spent last Sunday afternoon canvassing a low-income racially mixed garden-apartment complex in distant southwest Orlando.

Brown, an African-American retired Defense Department employee who still walks with a ramrod bearing that testifies to his Vietnam-era tour in the Army, did most of the talking. Armed with a list of residents identified through phone calls as Obama supporters, he was gregarious and gently relentless at the door. When a group of young girls playing on tattered couches abandoned beside a garbage bin began chanting Obama's name, Brown chanted with them and then gave them fliers to take home. The girls immediately raced to their doors, scattering like birds off a wire.


Brown and Warner did well. Almost everyone they approached was an Obama supporter, and many were receptive when the two suggested that they take advantage of Florida's early-voting period, which opened the next day (with long lines in many places). None was more enthusiastic than Shirley McIlwain, an older African-American woman who is a retired retail manager. She told Brown she was bringing six of her children and grandchildren to vote on Monday for the man who could be the first black president. "I thought I'd never see this," she said. "I thought it would be my grandkids."

Obama's onslaught has provoked some remarkable public grumbling about the quality of the McCain operation from a Florida Republican hierarchy usually known for its discipline (as the 2000 presidential recount demonstrated). But Buzz Jacobs, McCain's regional director, says that the campaign is "on pace to meet or exceed" the volunteer-recruitment and voter-contact benchmarks of Bush's cutting-edge 2004 re-election campaign. Lew Oliver, the veteran Orlando-area GOP chairman, likewise insists, "Our effort this year is larger."

Despite the GOP's intramural tension, muscle memory alone guarantees a formidable Republican effort. Through Tuesday, registered Republicans had returned almost 104,000 more absentee ballots statewide than had Democrats, continuing a long-standing GOP advantage. At the Orlando party headquarters, a wall chart shows that the most productive volunteers last weekend each made more than 500 phone calls per day to Republicans who requested but hadn't returned absentee ballots. One of those dialing is Sandra Marant, a Hispanic woman from Orlando who arrives promptly each morning after dropping her children off at school. "Last night," she said with a laugh, "my husband said, 'Sandra, this house is a mess. It's dirty.' I said, 'I'll clean it up after the election.'"

Obama, riding a wave of economic discontent, has already won a tactical victory by forcing McCain to work so hard for Florida, which gave Bush an edge of nearly 400,000 votes last time. Obama can win without Florida; McCain can't. But the result here will provide a telling measure of how deeply into Republican territory Obama can advance in a campaign whose mammoth scale across all the big battleground states is redefining what it means to run for president.


This article appears in the October 25, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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