“The state of Florida is ground zero for the failures of the Obama administration,” declared Albert Martinez, a spokesman for the Romney campaign in Florida. “How does he come down to a state that’s been hit so hard by his policies and convince Floridians that life is better since he’s become president?”
A Panera Bread franchise on the outskirts of Hyde Park, an upscale Tampa neighborhood, is as good a place as any to find voters disenchanted with Obama. However, many are still a long way from making up their minds, and there was little of the vitriol against the president common in more-partisan corners.
“I think he’s lost his way,” Jerry Bohannon, an insurance and investment planner, said. “I thought he had a lot of promise, but now he’s just a Washington insider trying to keep his position. I know he wants to be president for another four years but I don’t really know what he wants to do.”
Another customer that afternoon, Elissa Gross, who serves on the board of a local nonprofit, lamented the president’s health insurance overhaul. She called it a “socialized health care system.” But with one child at Columbia University and the other at the University of Florida’s medical school, she praised Obama for backing a cap on federal student-loan repayments.
“I like Obama,” she said, reflecting a common finding that voters think well of the president personally even if they question his performance. “I think he’s articulate, even-tempered, and energetic. The economy is on the uptick, so we’ll have to see.”
Popular and dynamic figures such as Sen. Marco Rubio, a contender for the vice presidential nomination, and former Gov. Jeb Bush will serve as important ambassadors for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
Janice Powell, a 58-year-old real-estate broker, sounded disgusted with politicians across the board, Democrat and Republican. Like one of every four voters in Hillsborough, she’s not registered with either party.
Powell was sitting at a small round table with her 25-year-old son, Cody Powell, and another real-estate agent, Ellen Zusman. The three have launched a website to rent private homes in the Tampa area to convention delegates. Bankruptcy filings by local home-builders have rattled a construction industry that long fueled Hillsborough’s economy.
“Middle-class people are really hurting, and all I see are a bunch of professional politicians,” Powell said. “I don’t see how we’re going to get back on track.”
More than half of the Florida voters in a recent Fox News poll said they don’t see signs that the economy is improving. Still, Obama posted an 8-point edge in the percentage of voters who view him favorably, compared with Romney. The survey and others have found an essentially tied race that will be decided by fence-sitters like Zusman. The mother of two is a Democrat who voted for Obama but hasn’t decided if she will support him again. She doesn’t think he made good on his promise to work with Republicans; she’s worried that Romney will pander to the GOP’s conservative wing. “The Republican Party loses me when it comes to social issues,” Zusman said. “It’s like they believe in small government until you get pregnant.”
Several polls have found a gender gap working in Obama’s favor, following a heated debate during the Republican primary over the administration’s efforts to require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their health insurance plans. Democrats are also plugging Obama’s advantage with Hispanic voters, pointing to Romney’s hard line against illegal immigration.
“The Republican primary made our job a lot easier,” said Buckhorn, the Tampa mayor, although the gaps with women and Hispanic voters are expected to shrink between now and November. “When they write the history of this election, it will be those two groups that will decide it.”
In an interview in his office at City Hall, the former Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter came across as an ideal surrogate for Obamain the region: an affable, centrist Democrat who projects competence and a pro-business mind-set. Buckhorn said that the secret to winning Hillsborough, a largely middle-class community that has been devastated by the real-estate bust, is responding to the concerns of working people.
“Obama is going to have to make the case that what he’s done has made a difference,” said Buckhorn, whose sleeves are rolled up in a picture on the city website. “Romney’s challenge is to come across as the average guy.”
Obama’s allies are already on the attack. A super PAC created on the president’s behalf, Priorities USA, recently aired a 30-second spot in Hillsborough and other counties that accuses Romney of making millions of dollars on the backs of middle-class workers.
That message has sunk in with Bernard Woodside, a 44-year-old African-American who was working on his laptop at Panera across the table from his two young sons doing their homework. “I think he’s geared more toward the upper class,” he said of Romney. “I don’t think he has a plan that speaks to lower incomes.”